60-Second Earth

Electric Cars Need a New Sound

Federal guidelines will dictate that electric vehicles start making more noise at low speeds. David Biello reports

Kids today may be more familiar with the sound of a rushing highway than a rushing river. But imagine that the internal combustion engine could be set aside and we could design the soundscape of our future. What aural environment would you choose for traffic?

For the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the answer is that new cars should sound like old cars.

Hybrid and electric vehicles can be so quiet that people outside the vehicle can’t hear them. So these too-quiet cars will be required to sound something like this [sound three].

The Obama administration wants a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. Slow sales of cars like the Chevy Volt and Tesla Model S may keep that number from being reached. But there are still hundreds of thousands of EVs and hybrids on the road today. It’s hoped that the new rule will help prevent thousands of pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

But the rule also hews to a possibly outdated tradition, like people who set their cell phone ring tone to sound like an old rotary phone. And it’s wasting a chance to reimagine what our cars, roads and even cities could sound like.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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