Advocate groups for the blind and vision-impaired community have renewed their calls for greater regulation of electric vehicles due to the safety risks they pose to pedestrians as a result of their silent drivetrains.
In new submissions to a New South Wales Government inquiry into the use of electric buses, Vision Australia has highlighted research suggesting one in three vision-impaired pedestrians reported having collisions or near-misses with electric cars.
"Silent vehicles pose a significant risk to pedestrians, particularly those who are blind or have low vision," Chris Edwards, Vision Australia manager government relations and advocacy, said.
"While there are many advantages of electric cars, the quiet engines make it incredibly difficult to hear them coming, especially when they’re travelling at low speeds."
Vision Australia, along with Blind Citizens Australia, is calling for an Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System (AVAS) to be compulsorily fitted into all hybrid and electric vehicles, requiring them to make a noise when travelling up to and including 20km/h forward or in reverse.
In 2019, the Australian government announced it would develop a Regulation Impact Statement around the AVAS requirement to be ready in early 2020, marking the first step in making an AVAS mandatory.
"This would bring Australia in-line with the United States and European Union, who have mandated similar requirements," Mr Edwards said.
According to Vision Australia, more than 380,000 Australians are blind or have low vision, with most citing walking their main means of transport.
A 2018 report from Vision Australia and the Monash University Accident Research Centre found 35 per cent of people who are blind or have low vision have been involved in a collision or near-collision with an electric or hybrid vehicle.
"On top of this, 47 per cent of people who are blind or have low vision said the introduction of electric/hybrid cars has reduced their confidence to walk and cross roads, which has a significant impact on their ability to be active and independent members of the community," Mr Edwards said.
While most hybrids are lacking the sound-emitting technology, the majority of electric cars (like the Hyundai Kona, pictured) have been fitted with this capability.
While a current Vehicle Noise Standard in Australia stipulates limits on external noise emitted by light and heavy vehicles, Blind Citizens Australia says this needs to be "extended".
"[This should be] extended to include hybrid and electric vehicles, to place a requirement for all hybrid or electric vehicles to have a minimum noise emission for auditory detection when being driven or when idling."
At present, Behyad Jafari, CEO of Australia's Electric Vehicle Council, says most electric cars already possess this capability, or are able to be easily upgraded, given they are being manufactured by countries where AVAS is mandated.
"Because it’s in development where it needs to be in development, there’s not much more we need to do," Mr Jafari said.
"If there are some older models [of electric cars] lying around without the particular piece of hardware we’re talking about very low levels."
For example, one of the first electric cars to arrive in Australia, the Nissan Leaf, emits an audible sound when travelling at or below 30km/h.
The Leaf's system, according to Nissan, "features a camera built into the windscreen, which is programmed to recognise pedestrians, cyclists and other road users. On detection of a road user, six loudspeakers directionally beam sound at the target to alert them of the presence of the EV".
However, a previous investigation by CarAdvice found hybrid vehicles posed the greatest threat to pedestrians due to the fact a large majority sold are not equipped with the sound-emitting technology and are unable to be retrofitted.
The European Union implemented a minimum standard for noise emittance by all new hybrid and electric cars by 2021, while the United States requires all new hybrid and electric vehicles to emit artificial noise up to 18.6mph (29.9km/h) by September 2020.
The inquiry being conducted by the NSW Legislative Assembly's Transport and Infrastructure Committee is "looking at the benefits of electric buses and barriers to their wider use on city and country public transport fleets".
MORE: Electric vehicle news