Electric Cars Sound Off, Starting July 1st

By and large, automakers have spent much of the last century trying to make cars quieter and more comfortable. Noise from vehicles can be disruptive and just generally annoying, so it makes sense to minimise it where possible.

However, the noise from the average motor vehicle can serve a useful purpose. A running engine acts as an auditory warning to those nearby. This is particularly useful to help people avoid walking in front of moving vehicles, and is especially important for the visually impaired.

Electric vehicles, with their near-silent powertrains, have put this in jeopardy. Thus, from July 1st, 2019, the European Union will enforce regulations on the installation of noise-making devices on new electric and hybrid vehicles. They are referred to as the “Acoustic Vehicle Alert System”, and it’s been a hot area of development for some time now.

They’re making the cars louder now?

It might seem like a waste of effort and energy, but safety is a serious businses. Monash University reported in 2018 that 35% of vision impaired persons surveyed had experienced collisions or near-miss incidents with electric or hybrid vehicles. This promises to be a growing problem as the take-up of electric cars increases, so it’s no surprise that laws are coming in to effect to deal with the problem.

The European Union ratified its guidelines for Acoustic Vehicle Alerting Systems, or AVAS, way back in 2014, giving automakers plenty of time to comply with the directive. The intention is for electric and hybrid vehicles to emit artificially generated noise when travelling at low speeds, for the purpose of warning pedestrians and other vulnerable road users of the vehicle’s presence and activity.

While there is no strict specification of the sound to be made, the intention is that a vehicle should make a sound similar in nature to that of its gasoline-powered equivalent. This is in order to make the system intuitive for all road users. It would obviously be confusing and dangerous if large trucks sounded like small hatchbacks, and vice versa, so cars are considered by category and weight class.

To warn pedestrians, synthesized sounds are created that respond to vehicle behaviour.

The official requirements make for interesting reading. The sounds emitted are intended to vary in volume and pitch, depending on vehicle behaviour. There are minimum requirements, enforced by a test regime, to ensure the systems meet the spirit and the letter of the regulations. The minimum sound level is 56 dB(A) as measured in the test, and the AVAS must be active at speeds below 20km/h. Above that, road noise from the tyres is considered to be loud enough to warn pedestrians. The AVAS is also expected to make sound when the vehicle reverses. Sound must be continuous, and the maximum sound level is restricted to 75 dB(A) – around about the same as a toilet flushing, or an average gasoline-fueled car. Outside of this, and some specifications on mandatory minimum frequency sweeps with relation to speed, automakers have plenty of scope to personalise the sound to suit their brand.

What’s It Like, Then?

It’s not the first time automakers have intentionally made cars louder with synthesized sound; sports models have been doing it for a while now, much to the chagrin of diehard automotive purists. However, rather than directly replicating the sound of an internal combustion engine, car companies have employed crack teams to develop unique and compelling sounds to usher in the age of electrification.

Jaguar’s first electric vehicle, the I-Pace, launched in 2018. Significant resources were spent on AVAS development.

As you’d expect, most have gone with a very science fiction, spaceship-like sound. Some have been working on the technology longer than others; there’s video of an early Audi e-tron project from way back in 2011, 3 years before the EU decided to enact the AVAS legislation. Nissan have had their Leaf on the road making sounds for almost that long, while Jaguar launched their system with their all-electric I-Pace. Most automakers have stuck to a fairly futuristic theme, while putting their own twist on the sound.

Would you trust these guys to build you an acoustic warning system? Me neither.

Electric trailblazers Tesla are yet to reveal the noise their vehicles will make after the July deadline, and Volkswagen are similarly playing their cards close to their chest.

We’d be surprised if they go with anything too outlandish. The fact that it has taken this long for regulations to come in is a testament to the inertia of goverments and big business interests. Still, it’s been a topic of some thought for a while now, given that electric vehicle noise was a key plot component of a mindblowing Kevin James film from 8 years ago. If the EU had moved quicker by about a decade, we could have avoided The Dilemma (2011) entirely.

Is It A Big Deal?

Fundamentally, it’s a useful technology to keep pedestrians safe, and as the technology is only active at low speed, it’s unlikely to bother anyone too much on a day-to-day basis. Unlike your straight-piped Fox body project car, your AVAS isn’t going to wake the neighbours or send the neighbourhood cats scrambling up a tree. With the legislation being largely done and dusted 5 years ago, and with the US set to enforce similar regulations in the next few years, it’s pretty much a closed matter. Expect there to be minor regional differences in requirements, similar to the variances in indicators and automotive lighting the world over. Overall though, the average punter will barely notice the technology – other than noting that these new whizz-bang cars do sound awful fancy, don’t they? Change, it is ever thus!

89 thoughts on “Electric Cars Sound Off, Starting July 1st

  1. I’m a cyclist and, in our country, I have to ride on the road if my speed is >5km/s (unless there’s a bicycle lane in the immediate vicinity), I can’t ride on the sidewalk unless I am going very slow. Listening to the cars making sound helps me a lot to make sure I stay safe – esp. when it comes to heavyweight cars, that have the potential of blowing me off the road when they pass by. Sure, I look behind my shoulder and that helps a lot to check whether there are cars behind me in the distance and prepare for them, but you can’t do that too often, esp. when the cars pass by – that might cause you to swerve (even if a bit), the chance is small, but it’s there; so, sound helps during cycling quite a bit.

    1. As a cyclist I would rather cars make no sound and people use their eyes instead of their ears before stepping out into the street. My bicycle makes no sound and occasionally people step out in front of me, I assume because they don’t hear anything. I want people to be trained to look before they leap. If you are visually impaired don’t step into the street, use the crosswalk.

      1. I’m not talking about people stepping on the street in this comment, so I’m not sure what you’re talking about. The cars making sound help me as a cyclist by providing additional information I can use so that the road is safer for me – unlike the pedestrians, looking around on a bicycle can actually hurt you – since you’re not looking at the road and might hit a bump you didn’t notice before turning your head. I agree that people crossing the street and not looking are irresponsible – however, ATM, we’re far from the “no cars make noise”, so the noiseless cars are more of an exception and won’t be as much of a teachable moment to people as you’d like, more of a danger, I’d presume.

        Re: visually impaired people, not all crosswalks have traffic lights, and with the ones that don’t have traffic lights, you actually have to wait for the cars to stop before crossing – but if there aren’t any cars nearby, you may cross freely, so, the argument applies very well. In other words, it’s definitely not about blind people jaywalking.

        1. As a driver on fairly dangerous roads, I can’t hear faster moving cars coming up behind me either. In fact, I can’t hear cars right next to me unless they have a loud stereo or exhaust. So I have to look to see them. I use something called a rear view mirror. They sell them for all sorts of vehicles. It’s amazing. You won’t ever look back, pun intended. Also, my vehicle comes equipped with daytime running headlights to to assist other users of the road to my presence. Perhaps they sell some sort of strobe light for cyclists… Hmmm…

        1. You have a good point, I live in San Jose and I try to use my bicycle every day, and I use a helmet camera just in case of an accident, after almost 1 year of use, I have to admit that electric vehicles are very dangerous for cyclist, I been in at least 3 different situations of almost been run over and in 2 of them they where Teslas, I dont know why but tesla drivers are far more dangerous that the rest of the vehicles, they try to go trough the carpool at high speed, invade the bike road to give turns blocks away from the turn, even inside of the parking lots they drive over the limit, if you add no warning or noise well. Even until now I have not hear a tesla horn, is like they think regular rules dont apply for them.
          Probably the fact that this cars dont feel like cars is a bad thing for the drivers, I dont know, I am not sure, but I think adding regular noise and reduce un necesary acceleration is not as crazy as it sounds.

  2. “Near miss” is a misnomer, if you really think about it- let me say it to you this way: Sorry, I nearly missed you. That means I hit you. A near miss IS a hit. Some people have been hit by silent cars, while others experienced a near hit.

    Where did the use of near miss to indicate a miss originate? Many phrases are nonsensical when one stops to think about what is actually being said. Let’s all communicate less ambiguously.

    Want to make some noise in a silent car? Put a rock in the hub cap, if it has one. Cow bell, anyone? How about that little bell on your cat’s collar? Of course it’s going to be noisy for the operator and occupants, adding to their fatigue, and probably making the driver more prone to zone out and do something unsafe. Then again, the noise might keep a sleepy driver awake…

    1. It’s the other way around. Before the automobile there were carriages and (in the winter) sleighs. A carriage is generally noisy, a four-in-hand especialy so. The sleigh is however incredibly quiet when the horse is going over fresh snow. That’s the reason for sleighbells. Genuine sleighbells are almost painfully loud, and their purpose is to warn pedestrians.

      My recommendation is for electric cars to make sleighbell noises. They might use a sample ( http://www.eletech.com/Products/Kiddie_Ride_Boards/xmasbell.wav ) or real sleighbells with some sort of shaker such as any of us could construct.

  3. They should just use the recorded sound of a large V8 gas engine and have the sound mimic a real engine varying with how the “gas” pedal is depressed, speed, etc. This is the exact reason I put a glasspack on my 50cc scooter because it was so quiet, I would be going 35 mph and some idiots just step off the curb and walk right in front of you because they did not bother to look and they heard nothing. This happened about 10 times but, after I made it louder, it has not happened since and it has been 2 years. Also, I know get 115 mpg instead of the 100 I was getting.

  4. This is probably the worst solution possible. Make noise pollution worse for everyone? A better solution would find a way to help people who need hearing assistance, which is a much smaller population and could include a variety of solutions to best meet the needs of the individual.

    1. wait, would the noise pollution even change? We’re just getting more electric cars (which means less non-electric cars, at least proportionally), so the noise pollution won’t increase in the bigger picture, and actually been decreasing for quite a while due to cars becoming quieter (as mentioned in the article). Another good thing is – we actually have a way of controlling the noise now, so we can experiment with i.e. “engine” noises that startle people less, but are still alerting them, and maybe sound better overall (without decreasing their warning potential). In other words, we’ve been decreasing the noise level of cars for decades, and we’ve now got cars that are so quiet it’s actually a problem, so we should be free to ramp it up a bit.

      Also, why are you talking about hearing assistance? The article is about positive changes for vision-impaired people (and, as I’ve mentioned, it also helps cyclists).

      1. Creating artificial noise at speeds below 20km/h is just increasing sound pollution in my opinion.
        1. I have electric car and I’m aware that it is silent, so I am extra careful around pedestrians.
        2. At speeds below 20km/h I can’t imagine that someone would step into my way and I would be unable to stop in time.
        3. Imagine how noisy is currently city center due to cars. With laws like this, this will not change, noise from cars in city centers will be the same.

        1. Same here. Driving my eCar VERY carefully on parking areas and the like. Above 10km/h – in my perceiption – the wheel-rolloff noise is loud enough. Besides, my last gasoline car was just as quiet at low speed, you could definitely NOT heat the engine at “walking speed”. So this whole debate is, as always when poltics get involved, single-sided.

          1. Interesting. I’M unsure what “walking speed” has to do with the subject, because motor vehicles travel much faster that. What do you mean when you say the engine in your last car couldn’t be heard? Couldn’t be hearn while s seated in the cabin with the windows closed? Or did you actually had some drive your car by you while you where standing tin the street. Of course the discussion appears to be one side, because it’s based on the perception the less noise of an electric drive vehicles pose an additional risk to pedestrians. Finally politics partisan or otherwise, an regulation are not synonymous.

  5. My Bolt does this. It’s not very loud outside (but I know it’s an otherwise artificial sound because it turns on and off going from park to neutral) and it’s basically inaudible inside. The sound is a bit like a flying saucer and nothing like an ICE.

    What I miss was that our old Volt had a button on the end of the turn signal that was a “pedestrian horn.” It was half as loud as the normal horn and made a morse code “S”. I wish they’d make that standard.

    1. As someone who drives a Tesla through a neighborhood full of children, I wish my car did this. For those unfamiliar with children, most of them are pretty oblivious to the world around them; drive a silent car, and even the smart ones will walk right out in front of you.

      1. That’s the reason I deleted the middle muffler on my previous car.
        It was simply so quiet and non-threatening sounding that kids didn’t take road safety laws seriously around it.

    2. My leaf came with a pedestrian horn half as loud as it needed to be…
      sadly they put it in in place of an actual horn…

      Had to replace it with something that actually made a noise that was audible to some one in another vehicle.

      1. When foolishly commuting to work by bicycle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found that I needed something to keep buses from overtaking me slightly and then trapping me into a bus stop. Once I even hit a passenger alighting from a bus.

        Solution? A BOAT HORN. rigged up an extra brake lever with a cable to sound the horn. It worked. Even bus drivers could hear me.

  6. Last year I was working in my front yard (garden -Jenny).
    I heard a car door close and someone talking.
    It was my neighbor, my dog was lying in the street, and she was shooing him off the road.
    I never heard her Prius approach, maybe something louder would have gotten my dog’s attention…

  7. Why not just detect if there’s a pedestrian in sight? Use automatic breaking instead of making noises. It already exists so why not just enforce that?
    Now that we have an opportunity to make cars silent, I think we should make use of it. And many drivers use a loud stereo to ‘warn’ others of their stupidity anyway.

    1. Because it’s better to allow a pedestrian to be aware of their surroundings and not put themselves in jeopardy than to have to aggressively brake because you sneak up on them.
      The stupidity warning many drivers employ is helpful, however many drivers are either not stupid or not warning others of their stupidity. So pedestrians can now be made aware of them.

  8. UPS has some local electric trucks that deliver in the neighborhood around my work. They emit a sort of honk or squeek at about 1hz. If you’ve never heard it before, it actually sounds like the truck just has a mechanical defect that’s making it squeek as it drives by.

  9. Most are going with spaceship-like sounds?

    Spaceships are silent, at least while in space, because there is no air to transmit sound. The whole problem is that electric cars were sounding too much like spaceships.

    It seems to me that the new rules aim to force electric cars to sound less like spaceships, though some may end up sounding like popular Hollywood false depictions thereof.

  10. My Outlander has AVAS. And a button on the dash to allow one to turn it off. (The salesman thought it was to disable the alarm sensors, because on the wifi type waves symbol on the button I guess.)

  11. My 2016 Renault Zoe (22KWh) already does this. It makes the sound of a tie fighter, which considering the front looks like an Empire Storm Trooper’s helmet makes a lot of sense :-)

    Other sounds can be chosen :-) !

  12. “35% of vision impaired persons surveyed had experienced collisions or near-miss incidents with electric or hybrid vehicles”
    Vision impaired people probably should not be driving.

  13. Minor correction – the EU regs apply to vehicles type-approved from July, not sold from July
    I think there is a second date – 2020 or 2021 I think, by which all new vehicles must have them fitted regardless of when they were approved

  14. Today’s Hackaday newsletter references this issue while discussing unintended consequences. Has occurred to anyone that unfamiliar sounds could be just as dangerous as silence? With auto makers coming up with their own unique sound libraries (probably thinking about branding), I can see pedestrians getting hurt because they either mistook the sound for something else, or reacted out of curiosity rather than caution.

    1. …thinking of Ice-Cream Truck sounds as a hack…definately a bad idea… :-) … the Clown Pepe – Honk-Honk would be fun for about … 60 seconds…also a bad idea. hmmm female “moaning” sounds could be funny on SOMEONE ELSE’S car. $50 to change it back. :-) Calvin was right – people are born evil. :-)

  15. What if can not hear to begin with? is it not your responsibility for you to know what is around you. what about all the texting that goes on when driving no hear them coming before the crash. so what is problem with electric cars run over you instead of a texting driver your still dead

  16. I’d be pissed, personally. One of the things I love about my Volt is that it’s so quiet. It’s so nice to roll down the windows and have the loudest sound you hear be the tires rolling on the pavement. I hate noise in general, and if I ended up with an electric car that intentionally made more noise, the noisemaker would suffer a serious electronic breakdown. Every time a new innovation comes along, some twit has to be like, “Oh – but what about *safety*…?” You want safety? Stay home. Or pay attention to where you are and what you’re doing. Put down the cell phone. Take some personal responsibility instead of expecting the world to change just for you.

    1. I agree with you but you are asking people to stop being people while you are driving. Kids aren’t smart enough or wise enough to make decisions based on safety and those are really the individuals that need the extra assistance here, not the hearing impaired. It’s the reason you have to slow down in school zones. This is going to happen, and you are going to have to get used to it. These other cyclists and hearing impaired (!) schmucks are just riding the safety coat tails screaming for change that won’t help them at all. You want to know who’s really hearing impaired? Drivers. We can’t hear anything outside the car, we have to watch out for your kids, your cyclists and your special eddys because we are responsible for it all. Would it make sense to add artificial noise to a car, further distracting the driver?

      1. Its a learnt skill, my kids will get off the road if they SEE a car but still have a long way to go before they learn what a car sounds like and get off the road. Its a constant battle when taking them for a bike ride or a walk. Im exhausted just froim having to be their eyes and ears for danger.

        if my kids get run over it is unlikely to be the driver of the car that was in the wrong.

    2. I totally agree Bil.

      t will only be an issue untill people get used to cars been nearly silent – in some cities electric trams have been a thing for decades I dont recall them having a noise pollution generator

      1. Tram driver is required to sound off when there are pedestrians around who could step in front of tram. The sound is produced by a mechanism which repeatedly hits the tracks with some sort of electric hammer, so that there’d also be vibrations to be felt from the pavement.

    3. Only a guess on my part, Accommodation for the hearing impaired might pee you off. Not that I’m saying a simple noise maker might make things safer for the hearing impaired, the they could have the oppisate effect. This?; would that be the kettle calling the pot black?

  17. When I transitioned from my screaming loud ’96 Trans-Am to a Nissan LEAF I noticed that few of the animals (or humans) could hear me coming any more. I never hit anything with that Firebird because animals were warned from miles away. (yes, I’m exagerating a bit) I can’t say the same with the Nissan LEAF. (poor little fox) It’s good when they can hear you coming as long as your car doesn’t scream like a banshee (the production name for the final version of the firebird was aptly named “Banshee”) …tire noise just isn’t enough. Incidentally I read somewhere that the LEAF’s “noise-box” can be hacked to make any sound you want but I wasn’t inclined to do that because I was leasing, but now I own the car…hmmm…could be fun :-) …quack…quack…quack… no. I not quite that sound

  18. I used to have a wonderfully squeaky service cart back in the days when I worked on computers at a small college. All was well and everyone was safe until the librarian lubricated the wheels on it without my permission. Noise can be a good thing in some contexts. I had to take up whistling/humming/singing-to-myself.

  19. Seems to me sound is important for kids to survive long enough to learn to look out for cars. The mosquito buzz has been used to keep younglings away from stores & street corners. Oldies can only hear the low notes. However anyone plugged into a phone with earphone can’t hear anything.
    If there was a bluetooth chirp or GPS position, speed & direction indicator emitted from all devices & powered vehicles then reciprocally all other vehicles & devices/ phones could be aware of proximity via screen or audio. Anyone not moving does not need to hear. might enable smoothing of traffic flows as well.

      1. No, no, that’s a bullshit idea. Do you recall why cycling helmets are even worn? So that, if I fall headfirst or something bangs on my head otherwise, I have less of a possibility for a brain or other head injury – the helmet is minimising the impact as much as possible, reducing my chances of dying or getting a permanent injury. Anything in my cycle helmet has the potential of going through my skull when the helmet makes contact with whatever I’m going to hit my head on. So, there’s nothing attached to my helmet and there never will be, not even a GoPro, flashlight or something useful.

        1. Forgot this is pedants corner… The most effective way of avoiding a head injury is to avoid the impact in the first place. Think laterally, mount on the strap.Then you lower the overall risk of denting your lid or loaf.

          Admittedly it might hurt your potty mouth if you chin the ground tho’.

        2. Good grief, what sort of helmets do you use.? Even a construction hard hat suspension isn’t likely to impart a brain injury. Regardless of what sort of protective head gear is worn, if a accident results in a serious head injury, a greater injury would result, if no headgear was worn. The port of the comment is the same old tired “logic” opponents motorcycle helmet laws have been pedaling for decades.

  20. The sound of a tiger tank, squeaky tracks and all.

    But seriously: i hope that when they choose a sound with an audible tone, there is a harmonical randomizer so you can differentiate the cars.

  21. Unlikely that adding to the din of traffic, would be effective in the streets. Perhaps maybe in parking garages and garage a warning signal could be beneficial. Maybe not one that sounds all the time.. How about those locations have transmitter that turns on an EV’s warning system, that sounds only when a car is put into gear, and turns off when the car is out of the range of the transmitter and the car driven some distance With every activation area having it’s unique ID riding on the transmitter? This in not about abled bodied pedestrians, having brain fart. Should be about keeping the world safer for the hearing impaired, although they aren’t immune to brain farts. So nothing can be perfect.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.