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NHTSA Proposes Minimum Sound Standards for Hybrid and Electric Vehicles

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing that hybrid and electric vehicles meet minimum sound standards in order to warn all pedestrians of the approaching vehicles and provide an opportunity for pedestrians, bicyclists and the visually impaired to detect and recognize the vehicle and make a decision about whether it is safe to cross the street. This new proposal will reinforce the standards set by the bipartisan Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010.

NHTSA estimates the odds of a hybrid vehicle being involved in a bicycle crash is 19 percent higher compared with traditional gas- or diesel-powered vehicles. For a bicycle crash, it’s 38 percent higher. This new proposal will help keep everyone on the roadways safe, whether they are motorists, bicyclists or pedestrians, and especially the blind and visually impaired. NHTSA estimates that if this proposal were implemented there would be 2,800 fewer pedestrian and bicyclist injuries over the life of each model year of hybrid cars, trucks and vans and low-speed vehicles, as compared to vehicles without sound.

Electric and hybrid vehicles do not rely on traditional gas or diesel-powered engines at low speeds. This makes them much quieter and their approach difficult to detect for pedestrians. The proposed standard, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 141, would fulfill Congress’ mandate in the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act that hybrid and electric vehicles meet minimum sound requirements so that pedestrians are able to detect the presence, direction and location of these vehicles when they are operating at low speeds.

The proposal would allow manufacturers the flexibility to design different sounds for different makes and models. Each automaker would have a significant range of choices about the sounds it chooses for its vehicles, but the characteristics of those sounds would need to meet certain minimum requirements. The main requirements for the sounds are to be detectable under a variety of street noises and other ambient background sounds when the vehicle is traveling under 18 miles per hour. Currently, at 18 miles per hour and above, electric and hybrid vehicles make sufficient noise to alert pedestrians and bicyclists without the need for added sound. In addition, each vehicle of the same make and model would need to emit the same sound or set of sounds.

This new proposal would also apply to electric motorcycles and heavy-duty vehicles. However, it would not apply to quiet traditional internal combustion engines or those equipped with “stop-start” fuel-saving technology that shuts off the motor at intersections. Although, NHTSA noted it may in the future change the sound requires sounds in those vehicles as well.

NHTSA sent the proposal to the Federal Register on January 7, 2012, and the public will have 60 days to submit comments on this action. If everything goes smoothly, NHTSA plans to phase in the new policies starting in the 2016 model year over three years. It is expected that the proposal will cost the auto industry about $23 million during the first year and NHTSA estimates the cost of adding a speaker system to comply with the requirements to be around $35 per vehicle.


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