The Noisy Fight Over Quiet Electric Cars

One of the great benefits of electric cars is their silent operation. But that's also a safety problem, say blind activists and the federal government. 

Carmakers are having a problem with a new law.

Electric cars are quiet. Too quiet. One of the biggest virtues of the battery vehicle is that it is virtually silent in operation. And heaven knows, in today’s marketplace, the EV needs every advantage it can get. But a quiet car can be a deadly car for the blind or disabled, and that’s led to federal government rulemaking that will require EVs to produce some kind of sound until they reach 17 mph. Exactly what those sounds will be is now being hotly debated.

I talked to Wade Newton of the Auto Alliance, which represents 12 carmakers and filed public comments last week looking to postpone the federal rule, and highly critical of the form it takes now. The alliance is walking a fine line — it supports the federal rule in principle, but doesn’t want consumers to be turned off by noisy, annoying EVs. It’s also worried about cost.

“Let the engineers figure out the best way to make it work,” Newton said. “We want a car to sound like a car, and we want some level of differentiation within a basic framework — so a sedan might sound slightly different than a coupe, for example. And if the sound is audible to the motorist, we want it to be relatively pleasing to them. But no one wants a wild west of different ringtones.”

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