Electric vehicles must make noise to warn pedestrians of their coming by 2019, U.S. road safety regulators said this week. And the measure is grist for our mill here at “Cars That Think” because Tesla Motors appears to be developing a robotic solution to the problem.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration announced on Monday that noisemakers would be needed in pure electric and hybrid vehicles operating at speeds under 30 kilometers per hour (19 mph). At higher speeds they evidently make their own noise, thanks to resistance from wind and road.
The first clue to Tesla’s plans, Electrotek reports, is the statement Tesla’s Elon Musk made at a press conference back in 2013. “I think the sensible and ideal thing long-term is to have proximity sensors that direct a pleasant sound in the direction of where somebody is walking,” Musk said. The second clue came earlier this year in the form of blueprints apparently leaked from Tesla. Clearly visible are structures labeled “pedestrian speakers.”
It’s unclear whether regulators will accept Musk’s proposal to beam noise with laser-like focus to spare the ears of the unthreatened. On the other hand, just broadcasting the noise takes away a key EV marketing advantage: silence. (Except for the motorcycle market. Some fans of Harley Davidson’s iconic bikes have disparaged that company’s planned electric version for its un-Harley-like purr.)
Many EV motorsports events already require the noisemakers to protect onlookers, photographers and pit crew. At this summer’s motor race at Pikes Peak, Colo., local stores sold modified car alarms to racing teams for just this purpose. The price: $8.
Toyota, which inaugurated modern EV technology with its Prius hybrid, has supplied optional noisemakers for years. So has Nissan, whose Leaf was the first mass-market all-electric car.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.