Silent but deadly: are electric cars too quiet for our streets?

Peugeot e-208 moving at speed with a blurry background
Cars like the Peugeot e-208 are fantastically versatile EVs, but are they too quiet for their own good? Credit: Rii Schroer 

The UK is looking to transition rapidly to low-emission vehicles with a planned ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2035 – brought forward from the original proposed date of 2040. But while there are emissions savings to be made by switching to more environmentally-friendly forms of propulsion, these battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could have a deadly downside: they're very, very quiet.

As of July 2019, EU legislation says newer models of ‘quiet’ electric and hybrid vehicles have had to have an acoustic sound system installed to prevent them being too quiet. From 1 July 2021, it will be required for all new registrations of ‘quiet’ electric and hybrid vehicles to have such systems. 

Car manufacturers have approached the sound engineering process differently. Jaguar’s engineers worked for four years to develop a sound they called “audible yet discreet and cannot be heard from inside the vehicle”, and BMW has even collaborated with legendary composer Hans Zimmer for its MW Vision M NEXT project, a concept looking at the future of BMW’s electric vehicles and the sounds they will make.   

Lizzie Jordan, who owns an electric car, says: “I love the silence that comes from turning off the ‘fake’ sounds my car can make. It makes for a great ride. That being said, I’ve also seen how people have stepped out in front of my EV car and been surprised by its presence – this very rarely happened in my previous car, a diesel.

“Although I prefer driving with the sounds off especially on the motorway for example, I now keep them on when in town type driving and in car parks.”

Issues surrounding noise pertain equally to other, non-car forms of transport, such as these electric scooters Credit: SOE ZEYA TUN /Reuters

Used car dealership CarwiseUK director Ray Walker has been in the motor industry for the past 35 years and says that EVs will only rise in popularity with customers. 

“EVs are quieter than our current fuelled cars and only produce noise caused by resistance of wind or tyre noises,” he said. “I do feel that they are going to be a success with customers where an EV life span is approximately at 200,000 miles, which equates to nearly 17 years of use if driven 12,000 miles per year. “

While most drivers would say that electric cars’ quietness is their biggest safety issue, road safety expert Thatcham’s Director of Research Matthew Avery says that this is not the only problem we should be focusing on. 

He says: “People think that electric cars are much quieter than regular petrol cars and diesel cars. In many cases, they are, but it depends... Overall, it’s perceived that electric cars are quieter than their counterparts but at times they aren’t. Some modern petrol cars are quieter now. You can barely hear them.”

Mr Avery adds: “There’s a big problem with people not hearing traffic. Just promoting noise on electric vehicles will not address the issue; you’ve also got the cultural issue of people being bathed in sound all the time, and therefore they’re not so aware with that environment.

“What you really need to do with passenger cars is you need to be fitting vehicles with Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB).”  

Most manufacturers now fit pedestrian systems and cycle systems with AEB, and it will become a legal requirement as standard technology in the UK between 2022 and 2024. 

“The issue of pedestrians and vehicles is actually quite a broad one, and a lot of other things need to be done,” said Avery. “I think more needs to be done and I think the reason is that we’ve got a push towards more environmentally friendly modes of transport. That’s obviously a good thing, but it does add a lot of complexity.

“If you then add in mobility scooters, e-scooters and things like that for people not using cars, we’re going to have a problem. Mobility is an issue when we’ve got more and more divergence. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

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