Australian authorities are poised to introduce new regulations that would force electric and hybrid cars to emit a sound at low speeds to alert vision impaired and distracted pedestrians.
During a meeting of all state and federal transport ministers in Adelaide earlier this month, it was proposed that “all electric, hydrogen fuel cell, and hybrid vehicles install an Acoustic Alerting System”, and that a regulation impact statement be ready in “early 2020”.
The rules would follow those imposed in Europe from this month and about to be introduced in the USA from next month.
A quick check of the brands that sell electric cars locally found that most sold in Australia – and those due to be introduced in the near future – are already equipped or are able to be upgraded to include an audible alert system because they have been designed to meet overseas requirements.
However, the new rules could throw a spanner in the works for the silent majority: hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius, which greatly outnumber electric-only vehicles.
Electric-only and plug-in hybrid cars account for less than 0.25 per cent of all new vehicles sold in Australia so far this year (less than 1600 from a total tally of 637,650), according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.
By comparison, Toyota has sold more than 100,000 hybrid vehicles in Australia since the first Prius went on sale locally in 2001 – but that number is expected to grow sharply as the company adds hybrid tech to more models.
Toyota is expected to sell more than 20,000 hybrid vehicles this year alone, likely doubling the total of 11,590 hybrid vehicles it sold in 2018.
While the Prius was originally a niche product, the hybrid technology behind it is now available on its most popular models, including the Toyota Corolla hatch, Camry sedan and RAV4 SUV. Other models are due to follow.
Hybrid cars are currently a bigger threat to vision impaired and distracted pedestrians than pure electric cars because of their sheer numbers.
However hybrid cars that have already been sold – and the ones due to be introduced in the next year or two – are not equipped with sound-emitting devices and it may not be technically possible to “retro-fit” the technology.
A statement from Toyota Australia said: “At this stage, there are no plans to introduce a noise alert on hybrid vehicles in the Australian market. However, we will continue to work with governments and key stakeholders to ensure our vehicles meet future regulation requirements.”
A joint study by Monash University’s Accident Research Centre and Vision Australia in 2018 found 35 per cent of people surveyed who are blind or have low vision “had either a collision or near-collision with an electric or hybrid vehicle”.
Hybrid cars have both a petrol and an electric motor but often use only an electric motor when travelling at low speeds such as in car parks and when approaching pedestrian crossings, making them next to impossible to hear other than their tyre noise.
“With electric vehicles predicated to make up 90 per cent of the entire Australian vehicle fleet by 2050, this outcome is significant for all pedestrians, especially people who are blind or have low vision who rely more heavily on other sensory systems such as hearing and touch,” said Chris Edwards, Vision Australia Manager of Government Relations and Advocacy.
“This isn’t going to be an overnight fix, nevertheless we’re pleased significant steps are being taken address what is a serious safety issue for all pedestrians, not just those who are blind or have low vision.”
The regulations in Europe and the USA will compel makers of electric and hybrid cars to have their vehicles emit a noise when travelling at up to 20 km/h.
For now, the sounds are similar to a hi-tech hum but the car industry industry is already planning on introducing personalised sounds.
In much the same way car designers have embraced the legal requirement of “daytime running lights” to add a visual signature to distinguish their models, car engineers are in the process of coming up with unique sounds that identify their particular brand of car.
Because of the length of time in taking an idea from concept to reality, no such individual sounds have been released on an electric car to date, but experts say it will start to happen in the next few years.