NHTSA Proposes Minimum Sound Standards For EVs, Hybrids

While not exactly on schedule, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) said yesterday it is moving forward with the rule making process requiring an alert sound for pedestrians to be emitted by all hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs).

The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (PSEA) that was signed into law January of last year gave NHTSA a statutory deadline of 18 months to begin rulemaking for setting federal standards for the vehicle alert sounds. Although that deadline – July 4, 2012 ¬– passed with no action, NHTSA is finally getting underway with the process.

In NHTSA’s notice of intent of rulemaking for the act, the PSEA standard must specify performance requirements for an alert sound that enables visually impaired and other pedestrians to reasonably detect EVs and HVs operating below their cross-over speed.

The administration defines cross-over speed as, “the speed at which tire noise, wind resistance, or other factors make an EV or HV detectable by pedestrians without the aid of an alert sound.”

The definition requires NHTSA to determine the speed at which an alert sound is no longer necessary, which the administration said today is less than 18 mph. Above that speed NHTSA says vehicles make sufficient noise to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to detect them without added sound.

The new rules would also apply to electric motorcycles and heavy-duty vehicles.

Some alternative fuels vehicles, like the Fisker Karma and Chevy Volt, already have a sound-making device in place, but most others do not.

Adding external speakers to quiet vehicles would cost about $25 million a year, or about $35 per light vehicle, NHTSA said. About $1.48 million of the annual costs would be to equip large trucks and buses and motorcycles with sound, according to NHTSA.

The PSEA requires that the final rule establishing the sound standard be issued by Jan. 4, 2014, and include a phase-in schedule that concludes with “full compliance with the required motor vehicle safety standard for motor vehicles manufactured on or after September 1st of the calendar year that begins three years after the date on which the final rule is issued.”

For example this means that if the final rule is issued Jan. 4, 2014, compliance would begin on Sept. 1, 2015, marking the start of a three-year phase-in period.

“Our proposal would allow manufacturers the flexibility to design different sounds for different makes and models while still providing an opportunity for pedestrians, bicyclists and the visually impaired to detect and recognize a vehicle and make a decision about whether it is safe to cross the street,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.

NHTSA estimates that if this proposal were implemented there would be 2,800 fewer pedestrian and pedalcyclist injuries over the life of each model year of hybrid cars, trucks and vans and low speed vehicles, as compared to vehicles without sound.

“Safety is our highest priority, and this proposal will help keep everyone using our nation’s streets and roadways safe, whether they are motorists, bicyclists or pedestrians, and especially the blind and visually impaired,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

NHTSA has 14 sample sounds here that it says could be used as alerting sounds, some of which the administration says would not meet the proposed specifications.