The sound of silence

16 September 2011

Electric vehicles make almost no sound. That’s a hugely important win after a century of loud internal combustion engines stealing what brief snatches of quiet we find on walks or bike rides.

But that’s a problem. The internal combustion engine is not only a cost-effective motive force generator; it’s a safety feature. You can hear an approaching car. You can’t really hear an approaching EV, unless the environment around is really quiet.

More design resources

If you’re sight-impaired, this is no laughing matter.

On the Chevy Volt, engineers designed what I call a horn belch, activated by tugging on the turn-signal bar on the steering wheel. Automobile manufacturers are looking for other ways to tackle the problem, such as generating some constant sound, whether it’s an imitation of an internal combustion engine, a low hum or something else.

I was impressed during a visit to Tokyo when the opening and closing of the subway-train doors was signaled by the sound of birds chirping. How perfectly Japanese and how elegant.

How would you approach this design challenge when it comes to electric vehicles? Would you look for a solution that was always-on (like the low hum)? Would you favor a user-generated response? Would you deploy sensors to signal the car to make a noise?

Let us know below! September 16, 2011 at 12:51 pm

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They should go the iTunes route and make people buy the car sounds/music/noise.

    Mike September 23, 2011 at 4:04 pm

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    So instead of ringtones we would have cartones! I like it!

Brian September 19, 2011 at 3:51 pm

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I LOVE that idea! Here’s my iTunes-downloaded car sound for the alert: the opening to “Truckin”…

Second choice? The opening to Mozart’s “Requiem.”

; )

What’s yours?

Jonathan September 20, 2011 at 8:11 am

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I think it should depend on the car; some cheesy elevator music would be fine for a Prius up to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries for a Fisker Karma!

Louis September 20, 2011 at 8:16 am

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Remeber when you were a kid how you thought it was so kool to put now priceless baseball cards in the spokes of your bicycle wheels? Not only is it STILL a kool sound but it’s loud enough and ear friendly!

Ken September 20, 2011 at 8:19 am

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The devices already exist (I.E. Deer avoidance). The pitch just needs to move down towards the lower end of the audible spectrum to sound more like a vehicle idling at slow speeds. The pitch could then increase as the velocity of the vehicle increases.

Bill September 20, 2011 at 8:20 am

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Music is a nice thought, but the idea here is to alert people. We all notice the backup beeping of large trucks and understand what that means. Something like that would be a more effective warning. Music would make me think the ice cream man is around.

Dave September 20, 2011 at 8:30 am

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When I was a kid, we put playing cards on the forks of our bikes to make a sound. how about a reed that is stroked by the spokes on the car wheels?

Cate Pretorius September 20, 2011 at 8:30 am

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Since the idea is to alert people to the fact that a vehicle is approaching, the sound should be qualitatively similar to sound of present-day vehicles. The sound should be emitted at a constant amplitude and should change it’s pitch or frequency according to the speed of the vehicle.

The amplitude of the sound should be adjusted according to the average sound in the area so in a suburban driveway it would be quiet and it would be loud in a noisy city. The sound should not be necessary above a certain speed, maybe 70 km/h, and the loudness could be increased by ‘pedestrian’ sensors.

Tommy Montroy September 20, 2011 at 8:34 am

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Why just have one sound?
Why not have a variety of sounds that could suit different folks?
I’m not suggesting that it should be ‘programmable’ via MP3 downloads, less you want someone mostly living on the edge to burst out profanity at people jaunting across the street.
But having soulds like a: a Harley, Original Volkswagon Beetle, 1968 Chevy Camaro, Indy 500 sprint car, etc.
Just some classic sounds to choose from, in a ROM and let the driver choose based on which side of the bed the climed out on that morning. ;-)

Tim September 20, 2011 at 8:37 am

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Sorry, I love my quiet Prius both of them.

tom saliga September 20, 2011 at 8:43 am

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I like Cate Pretorius’s ideas generally. On my Prius, I am putting a mild turbine sound tagged to speed. Its sound’s higher tech — differentiates from old fashioned internal combust engines and yet clearly suggests a vehicle — hey — anyone want race a turbo-turbine Prius !

John Elliott September 20, 2011 at 8:56 am

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Why add any noise at all. None of the electric or hybrid vehicles that I have run into are significantly quieter that many of the high end luxury cars available today. They all make the same amount of rolling noise. One of my neighbors has a Prius that I can hear coming a block away; it makes a very distinctive sound. We need to remember that most blind folk hear better than the rest of us. Our cities and towns a too noisy now, why deliberately add to it?

    Randy Eaglestone September 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm

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    I agree with John Elliot. We dont need more noise pollution and who says its a problem anyway!
    We engineers have enough real problems to solve without creating fictious ones.
    I remember driving the EV1 (a tester at Costco Corporate) and it emmitted sounds from the tires and the hydraulic steering (now we are going to electric), but my point is the same as John’s their keen sense of sound is usually better than ours.
    If you have to have sound – allow some of the speaker noises from the radio emit to the outside world.
    People always seem to have the radios on.

      Bill Bowblis September 26, 2011 at 10:04 am

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      Sounds to me like a good compromise would be a sound triggered by a pedestrian/bicyclist sensor. Most of the time, it would be silent and the technology to do the sensor can’t be that difficult, or expensive. It probably should be added to those gas or diesel powered luxury cars that are also silent. You can’t depend on tire noise. Some tires are amazingly quiet, especially at speeds appropriate for residential areas.

Dan September 20, 2011 at 9:24 am

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A constant lower pitched beep about once every 3/4 second. The sound could be disabled when the car reaches a certain speed because at a sufficient speed the tire and wind noise will be enough to warn someon that a car is approaching from a distance.

Minnetonka_Mark September 20, 2011 at 9:25 am

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EV’s must make noise for everyone’s safety, regardless of how many of a pedestrian’s five senses function.

Case in point: My son was walking his dog in the dark of night in our neighborhood and realized that a Prius was silently following him. The headlights were off. I don’t know if a Prius has a headlight switch (always on) or if this required a modification. In any case, this frightened my son. That damn silent car even followed him up our driveway a short distance.

A silent EV is a stalker’s dream vehicle.

Of course, a motivated person could defeat the noisemaker.

Barry Penfold September 20, 2011 at 9:38 am

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From the main article above:
“If you’re sight-impaired, this is no laughing matter.” “You can’t really hear an approaching EV, …”

Please don’t condescend the blind. They can hear an EV. Alert people can hear it. Any soft sound added to the nicety of a quiet Prius will still give the in-their-own-world pedestrian a cardiac arrest. An engineer’s time would better be spent on developing battery technology.

I like EVs because they’re quieter.We need a quieter world.

Norman Smith September 20, 2011 at 11:29 am

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When we race Electric Vehicles up Pikes Peak for the “Race to the Clouds”, then we are required to generate noise to alert People we are coming up the road. We tied a pulse generator to the accelerator pedal. Then the noise is only generated when the pedal is depressed and its frequency varies with power applied simaler to a normal car.

Joe Smalley September 20, 2011 at 11:40 am

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My Electric Fiesta had a separate fan on the propulsion motor that sounded like a leaf blower at full throttle. When I first converted the car, the fan was on all the time. Later it had a two speed controller that automatically switched between “hair dryer on style” and “leaf blower.” About a year before I sold it, I installed a temperature driven variable speed drive on it. Each iteration was quieter than the previous but you could always hear it running at over 100 feet away (even when it was not moving.)

I like the sound of a fan running. The rush of air and the quiet flutter of fan blades pushing air is a sound that “all is well.” Come to think of it, my office air handler has a very similar sound. It gets spooky around here when the timer turns the air handler off at 6 pm.

Almost all EVs have a fan. I believe that a variable speed drive could run a fan at an appropriate speed to allow pedestrians to hear it at a safe distance.

Mr J September 20, 2011 at 11:54 am

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How about the sound of a tractor trailer when at slow, parking lot speeds ? :- ))inst September 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

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backing up: beep beep
going forward: NOT beep beep
otherwise confusion: is it backing up or moving forward

@Barry Penfold: rather than assume all “blind” people have über-hearing, let’s just assume they’re normal and like everyone else will appreciate a little warning about an impending confrontation with an other-wise fairly silent vehicle.

One suggestion: do NOT allow the owner/operator of the vehicle anywhere near the sound source for whatever noise generator is eventually designed in. In fact, design it SPECIFICALLY to PREVENT such interaction. The present boom-boom thump-thump crowd is annoying enough when they’re blowing their own ear drums next to you at the light. Imagine how annoying it would be when broadcast externally! And NO the police will NOT enforce any sound laws you might be considering in lieu.

Cate Pretorius’ ideas make the most sense IMHO although I would not eliminate the sound at speed. People do walk along the highways. Perhaps just toning back the volume would be sufficient. Having said that, Dave’s “cards-in-the-spokes” and Len’s “George Jetson” sounds would be amusing but eventually annoying.

Again, do NOT allow anyone near the sound generation source. Anything else is just asking for trouble and worse. A sealed black box with Federal law prohibiting opening of same would be best; as much as a hate more government involvement in anything.

Finally, ALL car manufacturers should be given a month to meet, discuss, agree on, AND be held to a standard spec for this. Any holdouts can just pedal their cars elsewhere. Otherwise chaos will reign. And with all the existing noise pollution, do we really need dozen’s more? Beep beep when backing up, standard noise when going forward. A standard, well-known and understood standard makes everything easier and less expensive to boot.

Do you know why the automobile was so universally successful here? Because the user interface is so standard: one pedal to make it go, one pedal to make it stop, maybe one pedal to change gears for the more adventurous, one device to stop and start the motive force (ie, the engine), and one disc-shaped object to make the vehicle change direction. Personally, I think all the controls should be standardized as to location and function but then I’m spoiled. Of the dozens of vehicles I’ve owned / driven, I still think my 1992 Honda Accord Station Wagon LX had the best combination of them all. :-) September 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm

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P.S. Hey, Joe Smalley has a good idea there. And a high-efficiency cooling fan is almost sure to be an existing part of any reasonable design! Kudos, Joe!

K Sanger September 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Only make the bangs softer or eliminate them. Much better than a squeeky wagon wheel though I’ld vote for that too.

Though when I buy an electric car I’ld prefer no noise at all. I go nuts with squeeks and rattles in all my vehicles. A new noise is really distracting. My new car’s brakes squeel with slight pressure applied. I’ve had them apart twice and haven’t been able to quiet them up yet.

Each car needs to be slightly different too. Otherwise with multiple cars you might miss one. Its like trying to identify the correct whistle while playing volleybal with two courts side by side. Or having the same siren on multiple emergency vehicles. I sure that’s why they change it up.

Dean September 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm

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There are a lot of cars that are quiet so this is not just an electric car issue. Drivers need to be careful. The car has a horn and that’s what it is for. Ok maybe this is too practical. As the car takes off or when it slows down is when the sound would be needed, not when your driving on the freeway or down the street. This would work Varrrrrooom! for starting out (accelerating from 0 mph) and jugalugalugaluga… for slowing down or stopping (10 mph or less). Flashing colored lights are a good idea too, blind or not they get noticed.

Brent Herling September 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm

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A RF transmitter could cause a receiver in cane to vibrate and or make some warning sound. With multiple strip-line antennas comparing signal strength you may be able to alert direction. Infra red beacons in the car might be the easiest to discriminate direction. Another approach could use microphones sensing of an audio tone generated above 20KHz. All these approaches would not be objectionable to the driver but they would require special canes. I would favor the IR approach. Anyone want to fund some designs? I’m would be interested in developing such a helpful product.

Brent Herling
Electrical Design Engineer
Dallas, Tx

John September 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm

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Extra noise is more than a nuisance The garbage truck backup beep-beep-beep should be outlawed IMHO. I live in a city and am often woken up as early as 4 AM and randomly every half hour or so, leading to loss of my productivity and a few hundred of my neighbors as well. So there are two designs needed.
First, design a moving vehicle detection device because anything that moves is a threat to a blind person. Even a bicycle crusing down a hill poses a threat. Noise generation doesn’t work because it’s not directional enough in a noisy environment like a city.
Second, design a noise cancelation system for existing cars. The roar heard near any freeway is reason enough.

Monroe September 20, 2011 at 2:31 pm

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How about an amplified white noise generator? I started out building a system for my Prius with a toy car from eBay, but it sounds like white noise, so why not? A little less annoying than using the horn. I haven’t figured out how to make it come on automatically for starts, stops and idling, so a push button is the most practical (although less fun to think about).

Monroe Postman September 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm

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How about a pushbutton and an amplified white noise generator?
Simple, less annoying and might sound like a well tuned engine purring. Not as much fun to think about, though!

Manfred Bartz September 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm

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This is an opportunity to come up with something that is much more useful than just simulated engine noise.

I suggest e-vehicles should have a standardized sound which makes it possible for pedestrians to judge the speed of an approaching EV as well as wheather it is moving forward or reverse.
To accommodate a broad spectrum of hearing disorders, the signal probably should contain several, non-harmonically related frequencies and it should be amplitude modulated at a low frequency (1..10Hz) as well. The signal frequencies as well as the modulation frequency should increase proportionally with EV speed (with an upper limit). Reversing EV should emit a distinctively different sound – maybe modulate with a sawtooth instead of a sine wave.

Fred September 20, 2011 at 7:53 pm

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The quietly stuttering horn was lifted from Vectrix, the electric motorcycle. It is used for “turn signal left on” warning (to the rider) and available on demand by lightly pressing the horn button. In my experience, commuting daily on a Vectrix, it just adds to the noise floor. (I have never seen evidence of anyone else noticing it, and there has been plenty of opportunity.) Like a bicycle bell, perhaps useful at close range – if used deliberately and consistently.

A recent quantitative study revealed that at curbside speeds, many ICE cars are just as quiet as EVs. The EV should thus bear no unique regulatory burden. I rather like the suggestion above, make a motion warning device for the pedestrian. This avenue affords much greater utility for the wearer and new markets for radar/sonar detection vendors. The blind person can then take positive, reliable, action to protect them self. (I suspect that surviving blind is a lot like surviving on a motorcycle. Nobody looks out for you but you!)

R B September 21, 2011 at 1:54 am

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Lest we all forget the first lesson of engineering: KISS (Keep It Simple Stuart)!!!

The heat generated from the electric motor should be enough to expand the air around the motor to pass through whistle(s) of adjustable shape and size. This way, the whistle(s) can be designed to make almost any sounds the blind persons may desire, without having to draw energy from the system, while the sounds may still be directly dependent on the engine’s activity, too.

Whoever can patent this idea, and make it work, feel welcome to go ahead, and make money from it. There is plenty more where this came from. If you do, please just promise to donate to my favorite charity: GoVeganRadio (dot) com

Thanks much for consideration!

Jeff Penman September 21, 2011 at 8:57 am

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I am in the process of converting my 74 super beetle to an EV and I have been thinking about this subject a lot. My current plan is to mount a speaker inside what looks like a classic muffler and play the classic bug sputter. I am still trying to figure out how to modulate it to match the “engine RPM.”

Tony September 21, 2011 at 2:43 pm

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What ever the sound it should be tested an approved by the blind. I would vote for the sound of vehicle in scifi movies (a low whine or hum). It gives everyone a sense familiarity while distinguishing it from the IC. That said it would be cool to make it sound like a horse galluping with heavy breathing at “idle”.

BobC September 21, 2011 at 7:10 pm

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My first car was a 1971 Chevy Vega wagon (vega-ly a car) that had drum brakes on the rear that never worked right.

When driving normally, there was a high-pitched “wee-wee-wee” sound with each wheel revolution as a worn corner of a chronically misaligned rear brake shoe rubbed against the drum. It was relatively quiet at speeds above 25 mph, but quite noticeable below that speed.

When lightly applying the brake, this sound would change to a pulsed grinding noise, followed by the shuddering sound of tortured steel as the pedal was pressed harder to bring the car to a stop.

Despite always having lots of braking power, that sound always drew attention as people wondered if my noisy brakes were going to permit me to stop.

I want this sound on my ultra-modern electric/hybrid vehicle! A simple sound generator connected to the speedometer and the brake pedal should do the trick nicely. And I’d only need one speaker located near one of the rear wheels.

Though I also like the baseball-card-in-the-spokes idea.

Or perhaps the sound of a big angry dog on a chain, barking ever louder until the car comes to a stop, after which it becomes a nasty growl while the brake pedal is pressed.

Anything but Muzak or words.

Lloyd Johnson September 21, 2011 at 7:50 pm

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Tires make almost as much sound as a well muffled engine, so it is easy to see that a Prius can be heard from the tire noise alone. If you really must add to the noise pollution (I would not) just ask the tire makers to make a series of special tread patterns for the Prius that make a unique sound that is pleasant but easily heard. September 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm

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My company is called Lip Chip Solutions (when the wife says name it Lip Chip, that’s what you do) from having worked many years in the sound chip industry starting back in 2002. I think you could have sound chip with customer selectable sounds, that way making in personalized for the driver. The sounds could be of various road noise, tire noise, humming, beeping, and other creative noises. Everyone will love the idea that they can select their own vehicle warning method. In backup mode it can be integrated into the backup camera.

Most people in this group keep talking about the blind and how they might not hear it coming. My wife owns a Camry Hybrid, and I’m 56 years old with 20/20 vision and very good hearing, and I can’t hear it backing up down our driveway. It’s not only about the blind not seeing or hearing. It’s a danger that has been proven with hundreds of people being injured or killed simply because they can’t know most of these silent killers are headed toward them. Yes will need a more silent world, but safety in the vehicle is going to require “notification sounds”.

Charles Edmondson September 23, 2011 at 4:08 pm

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As usually, the government, like the four star generals, are busy fighting the last war. My wife is blind. She has been around some EVs, and says that they don’t need any new sound sources. Most of those complaints are from ‘advocacy’ groups, who have to have some crusade or another in order to raise funds. The EV ‘silence’ issue is just the latest one.

No vehicle is silent, and even a good gas engine vehicle going slow has very little noise signature. If you want to do anything, then put an IR transmitter on the front of the vehicle that a blind person can have the receiver for. Put similar transmitters on street signs, and they could be actually useful for something!


Jay September 23, 2011 at 4:28 pm

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Squeaky brakes? (my car already has this feature)

Mark September 23, 2011 at 5:00 pm

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Amazing – except for two folks suggesting the ideas be tested by blind folks, has anyone thought of just ASKING a broad sample of them what kind of sounds or detection means would be most audible, useful, etc. ,from THEIR viewpoint.
There are a lot of hearing impaired older folks out there too… what aboui asking THEM what they would be able to hear and work best….

TFC September 24, 2011 at 12:36 am

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Rolling noise is normally what I normally hear before the engine so why add extra noise to the world. Besides they have a horn in case you walk out in front of the EV.

BrainiacV, September 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm

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I want the sound of the Jetson’s flying car !!

TTom September 26, 2011 at 11:08 pm

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Most of this nonsense is just noise. Tires on the road make noise. Come by my house in the morning or 5pm and you can hear tire noise from the road half a mile away. It’s not engines, it’s tires. When they repaved, the noise changed significantly. Battery-heavy EV’s make road noise too. Yes, bicyclists, runners, and visually impaired may rely on subtle sounds as a warning. On the other hand who doesn’t have an iPod or cell phone in their ears. But the last thing we need is “car-tones” unique to the automaker, or far worse, unique to the owner. At what dB? Boom boxes and amped up bass annoys people for blocks. Let’s not make it a requirement. Let’s ask the visually impaired, not the govt. I hate that iconic “beep,beep,beep” of backing trucks. Somebody get me a deck of Bicycle (playing) cards for my spokes. Then let’s kill the street lights late at night so the astronomers can see.

CTengr September 27, 2011 at 9:08 am

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The idea of actually researching this with the blind is a good idea. As an Engineer, I always say: Let the data make the decision.
There is another side to this. I have a blind driveway that is located on a corner. The speed limit is 30 mph, but 8 out of 10 cars ignore the limit.I estimate several cars going over 50 mph. I have a close call at least once a month. Our standard procedure is open the windows and listen carefully for oncoming traffic before attempting to pull out of the driveway. I have noticed that the Prius is very hard to hear. Fortunately it seems Prius drivers tend to obey speed limits. It will be a different matter if high performance electrics, like the Tesla become widespread. I will have to invest in remote camera technology to see around the corner.

Jim Harris September 27, 2011 at 6:40 pm

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There is so much noise in the world already, why do we want to add to it? To me, one of the beautiful advantages of EVs and hybrids is that they are quieter. As a pedestrian, anything that can reduce the roar of cars and trucks going by is good news to me. If I ever buy an EV and it has a noise generator in it, that is the first thing I will disconnect. If you live in a relatively quiet neighborhood, just stand in front of your house for awhile and watch the cars going by and you will realize that most of the noise is from the tires against the road, and the air rushing past the car. An EV or hybrid creates this same noise. The only time an EV or hybrid is silent is at very low speeds in a driveway or parking lot. At these times it is the driver’s responsibility to watch out for people, animals, children, etc. I think this worrying about “silent” EVs is another case of people creating a problem where none really exists.

Alfredo Bonfiglio October 31, 2011 at 3:29 pm

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Maybe a microphone near the contact wheel-asphalt , and amplify with speed function.

Geoff Campbell December 20, 2011 at 11:51 am

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Well, let me start out with saying I have built a Hybrid-Electric bus and I know the problem. The solution may be some clever device, but we chose to use a 10" Trolley Bell: Look Out, here comes a 12Ton Vehicle! Actually the reason for my reply is to note that The Issue is not the vehicle but a larger problem that will not be fixed and is seldom discussed. The mixing of vehicles and pedestrian traffic has always been a problem. Just because you make a device that sort of replicates the telltale presence of an ICE(defeating the 'happiness of quiet' as the Japanese might say), that really isn't a solution as some dead pedestrians might attest to. The Problem is: Architecture of Traffic and Do Not blame the Architects, they know the issue and are Always instructed to continue the chaos; because the people with Money direct the Architect to continue to create the havoc of traffic(What passes for City Planning is just the public end of corruption, made to look like biz as usual). If some culture decides to separate the vehicles from the pedestrians and even eliminate 'the commute' sort of roadway vs. city design, then we can keep our Quiet Electric vehicles. 'Not going to happen in my lifetime or even the next, but I thought it important to point out the issue in case you really can't fix the vehicle problem(you shouldn't have to).

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