They are green, clean and make very little noise. It is this latter quality, initially seen by many as a good thing, that has become an acute concern for safety campaigners, who fear that the rising number of electric vehicles constitutes a silent menace.
When they travel at under 20mph electric vehicles struggle to be heard, especially by cyclists or pedestrians listening to music through headphones. “The greatest risks associated with electric vehicles are when they are travelling at low speeds, such as in urban areas with lower limits, as the noise from tyres and the road surface, and aerodynamic noise, are minimal at those speeds,” said Kevin Clinton, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
But the days of silence are numbered. From July next year, all new electric and hybrid vehicles sold in Europe will have to emit a noise when travelling at low speeds. All existing ones will have to be retrofitted with a device by 2021.
One study suggests that 93% of blind and partially sighted people have had problems with them. “It is a really important issue,” said White. “Guide dogs are all about giving people confidence and independence and a near miss or an incident with a vehicle of this type could really set people back a long way.”
About 140,000 electric vehicles are now registered in Britain compared with just 3,500 in 2013. By 2030 the National Grid predicts there could be as many as 9 million electric vehicles on Britain’s roads.
Chris Hanson-Abbott, whose firm Brigade Electronics is a distributor of vehicle safety products, is an adviser to the UN working group on quiet road transport vehicles that came up with the industry standards now being introduced across the world as electric cars become mainstream. “The object is to have warnings which are audible but which are not the least bit environmentally disturbing,” said Hanson-Abbott, who introduced the reversing alarm to the UK in 1976.
Battles have raged over what sort of sound the vehicles should emit and when they should emit it, Hanson-Abbott said. The agreed standard is a mix of tonal sounds, or white noise, that will cut out once the vehicle gets to about 20mph and the sound of the tyres becomes sufficiently audible. “White sound is very pleasant. It’s the sound of falling water,” Hanson-Abbott said. “It has two unique characteristics. One is that it’s very pleasant on the ear and the second is that the source direction of that sound is instantly recognisable. The moment you hear white sound you can point directly at where it’s coming from. This is an incredibly valuable quality.”
In contrast, “tonal” sound emitted by diesel or petrol cars can bounce off hard surfaces, making it difficult to judge its source. “It’s a huge improvement on the noise emitted by petrol or diesel vehicles because its sound source is directional,” Hanson-Abbott said. “That’s a massive safety factor.”
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Taken from an original article by The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/06/new-law-combats-silent-menace-electric-cars