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Chirps, beeps, or...Linkin Park? Electric vehicle owners could soon select the noise their car makes

The risk of a pedestrian being hit by an electric vehicle is 19 percent higher than with conventional vehicles.
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A pedestrian crosses the street as traffic moves through Times Square in New York.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Jonathan Gitlin barely got out of the way when a Volkswagen e-Golf scooted through an intersection in Frankfurt, Germany earlier this month. The journalist and amateur car racer was lucky, but not unique, noting that there were a number of “pedestrians who weren’t paying attention (and) had no idea they were walking in front of an electric car,” he told NBC News.

Pedestrian crashes, in general, have been on the rise in recent years, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates the risk of being hit by a vehicle operating in electric mode is 19 percent higher than with conventional vehicles. That’s because electric vehicles operate almost silently and are easy to miss until it’s too late.

NHTSA introduced legislation several years ago to address the problem, introducing a “quiet car” mandate that required electric cars to make warning sounds that can alert pedestrians and bicyclists, especially those with impaired vision. However, industry infighting over what sort of sound should be used has delayed implementation of the new mandate. Now, the safety agency may have a novel solution.

It wants to let motorists “select the sound they prefer from the set of sounds installed in the vehicle.” That could offer them a variety of different options, everything from beeps and buzzes to sounds created by rock group Linkin Park for German automaker Mercedes-Benz. Might the choices even include the burbling, space-age sounds from the flying car in the cartoon series, "The Jetsons?"

In 2018, an estimated 6,227 American pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents. That is up by about 250 deaths, or 4 percent, from the year before, and 41 percent since 2008. Pedestrian fatalities now account for 16 percent of all traffic deaths. Another 120,000 pedestrians are injured each year, and that figure is expected to continue rising.

In many instances, pedestrians are being hit because they don’t pay attention to oncoming traffic, a situation that safety advocates anticipate will become an even greater risk as electric cars take to the highway in ever larger numbers.

Currently, all forms of battery-based vehicles — including hybrids, plug-ins, and pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, account for barely 5 percent of the new car market in the U.S. But by the late 2020s, industry analysts estimate, BEVs alone could account for anywhere from four to 10 times that share.

At highway speeds, electric cars produce plenty of tire and wind noise, so the problem centers around what to do when they’re driving in urban areas. When NHTSA first enacted its “quiet car” regulations in 2016, it focused on speeds of 19 mph and under, and planned to require a single, uniform sound that all manufacturers would have to use.

But industry infighting delayed final action. The quiet car rule was supposed to cover half of their battery-vehicles produced on or after September 1, 2019, but has now been pushed back by a year. The question is what sounds eventually will be approved by NHTSA. The safety agency is expected to approve sounds that will be effective but not jarring, nor sound like they could be coming from a boombox.

That said, Daimler AG has experimented with a few options. Its Smart car brand debuted an electric vehicle prototype a few years back that could be switched to sound either like a big V-8 race car or the flying Jetsons car. More recently, it has worked with rock group Linkin Park to come up with tones that one of the high-performance electric models could use.

Ford wants to install a switch in its police cars that will let officers switch off the warning sounds when they’re on patrol or creeping up on a crime site.

Nissan, meanwhile, has been working on a sound scheme it calls “Canto,” which resembles what you’d hear from a wordless choir.

Toyota already equips its Prius hybrid and Prius Prime plug-in with a sound generator that makes truck-like beeps when it backs up.

Mitsubishi has tinkered with ways to amplify the sound of the electric motor in its Outlander plug-in hybrid. And Porsche will let buyers of the newly introduced Taycan battery-electric sports car produce a similar sound — if they choose a $500 option before the new NHTSA mandate goes into effect.

Not everyone is pleased with the idea of having battery-cars sounding off whenever and wherever they are in the city. That includes several groups that also have tried to silence car alarms and the loud beeps that many cars make when an owner uses the remote key lock. Nissan contends the warning tones are only needed up to speeds of around 12.5 mph, or 20 kmh.

Manufacturers have griped about the cost, meanwhile, which NHTSA anticipates will come to around $40 million annually, but the agency contends the quiet car rule could reduce the cost of treating pedestrian injuries by more than $300 million.

Ford, meanwhile, has asked for an exception to the rule. It is the nation’s number one supplier of police cars, primarily versions of the midsize Explorer SUV. The automaker wants to install a switch that will let police switch off the warning sounds when they’re on patrol or creeping up on a crime site.

Regulators are looking for feedback from consumers on the revised rules. The agency hasn’t yet said when it expected to finalize the updated mandate, but it will need to be soon unless NHTSA plans to delay implementation yet again.