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Should silent electric cars be forced to make a noise?

Published: 01 October 2019

► The perils of silent electric cars
► Should EVs make artificial noises?
► New Acoustic Vehicle Alert System

A few years ago I was crossing a quiet road in London. My ears told me the coast was clear, so I glanced to my left and stupidly stepped off the pavement as I simultaneously looked right – only to find an electric G-Wiz bearing down on me like a silent assassin. Imagine being killed by a G-Wiz. Like having ‘Death by gerbil’ on your coroner’s report. 

I remembered my close shave recently as a new European law on electric car sounds came into force. As of 1 July, all new electric and hybrid cars and motorbikes must have an external sound generator so they can be heard by blind people and stupid pedestrians like me who don’t follow the instructions of the Green Cross Code Man.  

The Acoustic Vehicle Alert System, or AVAS, has to emit a constant sound at speeds up to 20km/h (just over 12mph) and while reversing. Transport for London (TfL) was in the news recently when it demonstrated a number of experimental AVAS sounds for a new generation of electric buses, due to arrive in the autumn. It invited experts and campaigners to preview the noises, and none of them were impressed.

‘Spaceshippy’ was the damning assessment of John Welsman from Guide Dogs UK. Another sounded like ‘someone blowing bubbles through a pipe’ while a third was ‘an intermittent bleeping sound like an email alert that would increase or decrease in rapidity depending on the speed of the vehicle. It was very irritating.’ 

In conclusion, Welsman suggested TfL should just synthesise the sound of a bus: ‘As a blind person I could spot the old Routemaster a mile off, because it was so distinctive.’ Gloria Elliott of the Noise Abatement Society – also in the TfL demo – agreed. She too thought the new sounds were ‘ghastly’: ‘If they had a quieter version of the sound of a Routemaster bus, that might be a good idea.’

Before you think they’re just stuck in their ways, there’s a chance the TfL spaceship sounds won’t be compliant anyway, because the new legislation actually requires manufacturers to mimic existing vehicles. Section II.3.a of Regulation (EU) No 540/2014 is unambiguous: ‘The sound to be generated by the AVAS… should be easily indicative of vehicle behaviour and should sound similar to the sound of a vehicle of the same category equipped with an internal combustion engine.’

The Acoustic Vehicle Alert System, or AVAS, is now mandatory in Europe

Great. You realise what this means? If Apple finally gets around to launching its revolutionary autonomous car, a mysterious aluminium sphere with gullwing doors and an electric hyperdrive, it’s going to drone up the street like an old AEC diesel complete with slow, grating gear-changes. Imagine in a galaxy far, far away, Luke Skywalker appears through the desert heat haze in his Landspeeder, to the sound of an old FX4 taxi. 

This is terrible. Things are supposed to move on, technology is supposed to change. When cars first came along 125 years ago, no one said they had to clip-clop like a horse, in order that pedestrians could recognise them. 

The first pedestrian killed by a car in the UK was Bridget Driscoll in 1896, knocked over by an early Benz that was being demonstrated in the grounds of Crystal Palace in London. It wasn’t that she failed to recognise its sound. Rather, she was knocked over because the car was being driven, according to one witness, ‘like a fire engine’ – ‘as fast as a good horse could gallop’. The unlicensed driver had only been driving for three weeks, and there were no rules about which side of the road he should have been on. Apparently he zig-zagged before hitting poor Mrs Driscoll, ringing his bell and shouting ‘stand back’. I think we’ve all seen that kind of driving before. The novelty of the machine – and its noise – wasn’t the issue.

So let’s not stand in the way of new noises now. I say bring on the novelty of some spaceship sounds: silence is the real danger. If that electric G-Wiz had been making any noise at all – pinging like an email or flushing like a toilet – the noise would have stopped me stepping out in front of it. If petrol engines have to die, then fine, but I want to march towards a bold new sci-fi future, not stay trapped in a soundscape of the 1990s. One full of 50cc delivery bikes going ‘mwhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’. 

More columns and opinion pieces by Mark Walton

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast