5 July 2019

The Sound of Silence - not if it’s an electric vehicle

I have never been particularly enamoured by engine and traffic noise. Electric vehicles should make for quieter streets so one can converse without bellowing, or listen to bird song. I love the rustle of trees which is why the 1960s film Blow Up is an all-time favourite; remember the breeze rustling the leaves as David Hemmings watches the couple in the park? Alas, it appears that new tranquillity will be short-lived. 1st July saw the EU introduce legislation requiring any new electric vehicle with four wheels or more to have AVAS (Acoustic Vehicle Alert System) to alert pedestrians and, in particular, those with visual impairment of a vehicle’s presence.

AVAS requires the car to emit fake noise of at least 56 decibels any time it is moving 20 kilometres per hour or less. 56 decibels is the equivalent of a normal conversation. Several EV makers already equip their cars with AVAS, but now it’s a regulatory requirement.

I have several problems with this new law although I do not belittle its good intent towards the visually impaired.

Of course, one does not mind the odd background conversation but like a packed restaurant, lots of separate conversations become an almighty racket. The new rules include no curfew whereby the car can only “chat” between certain hours avoiding late night or early morning.

Does the 20kph or less give sufficient time or distance to forewarn pedestrians in the street of an impending vehicle? What if the vehicle is travelling above 20 kph and a pedestrian steps out at the last minute. This could mean no noise emission and a potential collision, possibly with fatal consequences.

What about the quality of the noise? I could live with the hum of Buick’s 215 compact and lightweight aluminium V8 engine bought by Rover and re-engineered for many of its fine cars, including the beloved SD1. This would be automotive karma, but I fear such tranquillity will not be bestowed upon us.

It seems any noise will be acceptable provided it meets the minimum decibel level. The noise emission could be of motorbikes, dragsters, even Motorhead. If the Birdie Song or Grandad became the de rigeur tumult then I will know humankind has reached its nemesis.

Another cry of concern is the legislation prescribes a minimum noise level but many AVAS could exceed this level. A poly anthem of Priuses each pumping out more than 56 decibels could mean we all start wearing ear protectors and not hear the approaching vehicle anyway.

What is the solution? Apart from living on a car-free island maybe humans should take more of the responsibility.

The visually impaired should be issued with a sensor device which warns them of vehicles and obstacles.

The visually able can abide by the Highway Code. If London is anything to go by we are seeing the advent of zombie pedestrians with eyes glued to their smartphone along with wearing headphones. 21st-century pedestrians walk oblivious to their environs. Many pedestrians fail to stop, look and listen and wilfully walk into the road placing the responsibility on the driver to avert the walker’s early visitation to their Maker. The Humans Rights Act needs to be counterbalanced by the Human Responsibility Act.

The final twist in the tale? No one has yet proven whether noise emitting EV’s save lives. A Norwegian study should, hopefully, soon provide an answer.

Meanwhile, beware of unpredictable pedestrians and don’t download the Birdie Song.


Julian Wilkins

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