And what can be done about this?
Electric cars, so their manufacturers tell us, will be the cars of the future. There is much justification for this claim – electric cars have the potential to reduce harmful gas emissions and should mean that many countries could reduce their dependence on oil.
These vehicles are also incredibly silent – a feature which advertisers market as a selling point but which in fact could be considered a design flaw…
So surely the world would be a better place if cars produced less loud noises? Well, yes and no. Yes as everyone wants a quieter living environment. And no because if, like me, you often find yourself nearly stepping into the path of a cyclist because you haven’t heard them coming you will know how essential the noise of vehicles is.
Vehicle noise helps all road users judge the speed of other traffic and their proximity to us. It can also help our brains quickly process information about the direction from which a vehicle is approaching and whether the vehicle is accelerating or slowing.
Internal car noise can also help drivers ascertain the state of their car; has the engine conked out, what speed are they travelling, is the car ‘under pressure’? It is always reassuring to hear some noise when you put your foot on the pedal.
As electric vehicles generally remain quiet at low speeds, their drivers do not have these audio prompts to sharpen their senses. In a way, electric car drivers cannot call on all their senses to drive safely.
And road safety experts are starting to get more vocal about the safety implications of cars which are very quiet at low speed.
At a recent road safety conference, research organisation Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) highlighted evidence which shows that hybrid electric vehicles are twice as likely to be involved in an accident when:
- Stopping or slowing
- Entering or leaving a parking space
Electric cars could also pose safety risks to blind and partially-sighted groups.
It is clear that there is a demand for electric cars to have the sound put back into them. This could be ‘inherent’ sound (by adapting the machinery so that it produces real sound) or ‘synthesised’ sound.
The idea of synthesised sound in a vehicle might seem a strange concept but then many electric tills are designed to mimic the sound of ‘old-school’ tills opening and shutting – a great help for letting shop assistants know when a transaction has gone through and whether the till has been left open or not.
And a rather dinky looking green van called ELVIN is the vehicle world’s equivalent of an electric shop till. ELVIN stands for ‘electric vehicle with interactive noise’ and ‘he’ has been modified by his manufacturer WMG to emit different sounds dependent on his speed and state.
Much publicity surrounded ELVIN’S unveiling in 2011 and motoring journalists were clearly impressed with the fact that the green vehicle is capable of producing white noise and UFO sounds depending on the situation he finds himself in.
BBC News, reporting on the issue of silent electric vehicles, posed the question: “What noise should an electric car make?”
Personally, I’d be in favour of them sounding like a real car rather than a UFO, police car or crazy frog. But then maybe that’s just me!
Nissan has the same idea and is already started fitting noise-emitting speakers beneath the bonnets of the electric cars which roll off its production lines.
Hopefully you will see – and, of course, hear – more ELVIN-style vehicles on a road near you soon.
James Christie writes for road safety association GEM Motoring Assist. Check out the GEM website to find some great breakdown cover deals.