Electric vehicles – the silent danger

Toyota Prius hybrid carAnyone that has had the pleasure of sitting in a Toyota Prius will know that as it begins to move, the car is eerily silent. The experience is almost ghostly, as the car glides away. Being a hybrid car, the Prius uses an electric motor to move at low speeds, switching to a petrol engine as it accelerates. Hybrid and electric cars that use electric motors in order to propel the vehicle present a danger to pedestrians and cyclists by virtue of the fact that at slow speeds they are dangerously silent. Thus a cyclist may fail to hear the electric car on their shoulder as they manoeuvre into the centre of the road while for someone wishing to cross the road, the vehicle can only be seen, not heard, presenting an obvious obstacle for mobility for people that are visually impaired.

The issue is one of many being addressed by the UK’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles. Given the obvious dangers of this technology, we contacted the Office to find out what action is being taken in the UK to address this issue. The good news is that EU regulations will require sound generators to be fitted to all new types of electric and hybrid cars from 2019. Prior to 2019, a technical standard for sound generators will be developed. The standard will set out what are appropriate types of sounds, how these will be activated and deactivated and what the maximum and minimum sound levels should be. Vehicle manufacturers will also have the option to fit sound generators prior to the 2019 deadline.

In addition, to these steps, the European Commission has agreed to undertake further research, including the role of active safety systems such as pedestrian detection and automatic braking. This research will be used to determine whether such solutions should be permitted as an alternative to sound generators in the future.

While these systems offer plausible future alternatives to noisy solutions, for someone with a visual impairment, hearing a vehicle approaching offers greater security than trusting that an unseen, unheard vehicle will stop for you. Nevertheless, despite the increasing numbers of silent, electric vehicles already on Britain’s roads, it is perhaps reassuring to know that the issue is being addressed, even if a little later than might have been anticipated.