'Quiet cars' to get alert sounds

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- Automakers would be required to alert blind pedestrians, bikers and others to "quiet cars" with chirps or other sounds under a deal announced today.

The two major auto trade groups -- the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers -- sent a letter today to Congress with two major advocacy groups for the blind supporting legislation.

"Good policy is a collaborative effort, and this is a good approach for pedestrians and automakers," said Alliance President and CEO Dave McCurdy of the trade group that represents Detroit's Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp. and seven other automakers. "This encourages an innovative solution."


Congress is expected to attach the measure to a broad overhaul of the nation's auto safety laws.

The new requirement "will help to ensure the safety of pedestrians, especially those who are blind, as an increasing number of hybrid and electric vehicles are sold" said the letter signed by the National Federation of the Blind, American Council of the Blind and the two auto trade associations that represent nearly all major automakers.

Blind pedestrians may not hear hybrids that shut off engines as vehicles come to a stop. New plug-in electric vehicles will be quieter still -- and some will have no internal combustion engine and will run only on battery power.

Under the proposed legislation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration must begin writing standards that would set requirements "for an alert sound that allows blind and other pedestrians to reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle" within 18 months and must finalize the rules within three years.

Drivers won't have to activate sounds; vehicles will do it automatically. The sounds must allow a blind pedestrian "to reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle in critical operating scenarios."

Last month, NHTSA chief David Strickland said that quiet hybrid vehicles may pose risks to pedestrians.

"A quieter fleet could potentially put pedestrians at risk, especially blind pedestrians," Strickland said at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit.

He noted that NHTSA is researching the issue.

"Our analysis of limited data from 12 states shows that hybrid electric vehicles do have a significantly higher incidence rate of pedestrian crashes than internal combustion engines for certain maneuvers -- like slowing or stopping, backing up, entering or leaving a parking space, and making a turn," Strickland said.

NHTSA is working on the second phase of its research project "to assess how we might require vehicles to emit a base level of sound at low speeds to provide some level of identification to pedestrians that a vehicle is approaching.

"We think to be effective, this sound has to be readily identifiable as a vehicle," he said.

Automakers will not be able to allow drivers to deactivate the sounds. NHTSA must "determine the minimum level of sound emitted from a motor vehicle that is necessary to provide blind and other pedestrians with the information needed to reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle operating" and must "consider the overall community noise impact."

The draft legislation notes that blind pedestrians cannot locate and evaluate traffic by sight and instead must listen to traffic to discern its speed, direction, and other attributes in order to travel safely and independently. It also notes that others pedestrians who are not blind, bicyclists, runners and small children, will benefit as well.

dshepardson@detnews.com (202) 662-8735