Back in 2008 when I was starting out podcasting I commented on some new (for that time) technology from Lotus. They had figured out that electric and hybrid cars could be too quiet for pedestrians and accidents may occur because people wouldn’t hear the vehicle. Lotus called their technology “Safe and Sound” and now 7 years later, I wondered what had happened to the concept.
Firstly, the consideration of pedestrian safety has been a concern for many Governments and organisations since the modern hybrid and electric vehicle reached the market. The issue has bubbled along with Governments getting in the way (as they seem to do) and delaying any legislation to enforce a suitable level of noise. In the US, legislation was signed in 2011 to ensure that cars made a noise, however the implementation has stalled and doesn’t expect to get moving until 2018! The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) recently pushed back the decision date of what the noisemaker should look like.
Some owners say they prefer the quietness of their electric cars in comparison to a petrol or diesel car, although in my experience of being a pedestrian near a Tesla, they do still make a reasonable amount of noise thanks to the tyres etc. Again, common sense doesn’t prevail and it is the car manufacturers that have to make changes rather than pedestrians taking responsibility. Granted some pedestrians would need some extra help: the blind would appreciate some extra noise, although I am sure that they are acutely aware of their surroundings thanks to the heightened use of their other senses.
Nissan and Chevrolet have some noise emitters fitted to their cars that operate at low speeds with the Chevy version actuated by the driver – rather like a traditional horn!
So this is where Lotus came in. They developed a system that replicated an engine noise that got louder the faster the car went. The concept has evolved with Lotus working with a company called Harman (owner of several brands including Harman/Kardon) to develop the HALOsonic system: “HArman LOtus” and the development system is called ESS (Electric Sound System) which they tested on a Toyota Prius with a range of sounds. These “aural badges” come in many styles: flat 4, flat 6, V8, V12 or even supercharged engines! These are projected forward of the vehicle for pedestrians and animals to hear. It would be great to hear a V12 Prius!
Harman now have an eESS and an iESS (external and internal) and they even do systems for road noise cancellation for passengers as well as other technologies. They are thinking about delivering the right amount of noise both inside and outside the car’s shell.
This is clearly the way of the future, whether mandated by Governments or not and could be a good thing. Personally I think that if all vehicles are quieter due to new propulsion systems, not just electric but hydrogen and other fuel types, these audio technologies will not be required as the overall ambient noise around roads will drop substantially. On the flip side, it’s going to take decades for all cars to be this way, so there could be a healthy window of opportunity. The hope though is that Governments around the world agree to the same noise levels and sounds and make it work properly.