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Do or don’t: Acoustic warning devices on electric cars

Beep, click, vroom. Well, maybe not the last one. Electric cars have many similarities to combustion vehicles, but the sound they make isn’t one of them. While city dwellers are quietly celebrating the prospect of less noise pollution, there is a potentially dangerous flipside. The quietness of silent cars makes it hard for pedestrians and cyclists, let alone the blind or visually impaired, to determine if a car is approaching based on hearing alone.

The fact is that when travelling at low speeds (less than 20 km/h), such as in parking lots or residential areas where many pedestrians share the space, electric cars are close to silent. For the wind and tyres of an electric car to generate noise that’s clearly audible to people in the vicinity, it must accelerate to 50 km/h or above. This lack of noise, it turns out, is a real problem. Studies have documented an increased number of accidents involving electric or hybrid cars and pedestrians in recent years.

UN takes action
In the interest of preventing electric cars from becoming a greater danger to society, the UN’s World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations now mandates that electric and hybrid cars are fitted with acoustic warning devices. No joke. Some car noise, it appears, is a good thing.

To be fair, the new regulation explicitly seeks to strike a balance between reducing the risks silent cars pose and keeping the noise they emit as low as possible. A so-called Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System only gives off noise when the car is travelling 20 km/h or less. Moreover, the system increases in volume as the car increases in speed, though the regulation defines a maximum sound limit to avoid unnecessary noise pollution. Here’s what the warning device sounds like. Resembles something reaching the limits of outer space or time travelling, doesn’t it?

Warning devices: do or don’t
Obviously, there’s a reason why the UN is tackling this issue in the interest of pedestrian and other road user safety. But is it going too far? This is certainly up for debate. And if you ask me, the jury is still out.

To be fair, the UN has already suggested that non-acoustic innovative car safety technologies, such as pedestrian detection systems, could also do the job in the future. Using, for example, radar and cameras, such systems detect pedestrians and other objects in a car’s path and tell the driver to brake or even brake automatically. But until then, listen out for acoustic warning devices.

Tell us what you think! Should electric cars be equipped with acoustic warning devices? Why or why not.