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Leaf and Volt Won't Be Silent, But Don't Expect Custom Engine Noises

By · June 07, 2010

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With the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt electric vehicles just months, one detail we don't yet know is what they will sound like. Sure, the relative quiet of an electric motor may be a virtue to some drivers and cut down on noise pollution, but there are legitimate concerns that when it comes to autos, silence can be dangerous. Advocacy groups for cyclists and the blind are particularly concerned about what this could mean when thousands of EVs hit the road next year.

As a result, carmakers have agreed to equip their electric vehicles with some sort of warning noise that will alert pedestrians and cyclists that a car is approaching. But don't expect to be able to customize your ride with the Knight Rider theme or "Stayin' Alive"— pretty much everyone seems to agree that such an option would be obnoxious.

“We do hate the idea of ring tones,” said a National Federation of the Blind spokesman to the New York Times. “We think manufacturers should decide the sound or set of sounds, and drivers should not able to alter them.”

A 2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that hybrids traveling at low speeds were 50 percent more likely to be involved in an accident with a pedestrian, and 100 percent more likely to hit a cyclist. (Though the NHTSA admitted that the reliability of the study was severely limited by a small sample size.) This is because hybrids like the Toyota Prius can run completely on battery power at low speeds and remain almost totally silent.

The best solution seems to be what GM calls a “Bruup, bruup” noise that approximates the sound of an idling gasoline engine. This would be somewhat similar to the "Safe and Sound" system developed by Lotus several years ago, displayed in this video:

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