Ever Lee Hairston is walking along Sunset Boulevard. Nothing unusual here except she's blind.
"I’m waiting to listen to the pattern of the traffic so I’ll know when it’s safe to move," Hairston said, before starting to cross the street. "I could hear those cars turn, but if it was an electric car, the quiet car, I wouldn’t have heard that at all."
Hairston is president of the California affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind and is one of many sightless people who’ve been advocating for a regulation that will take effect in about two years. Starting in 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will require electric vehicles to include an artificial external sound.
It’s usually a low-grade humming or whirring that plays from an exterior speaker the moment the car’s put in gear. It lasts until the car reaches a speed of about 20 miles per hour. Without it, EVs are silent at low speeds.
And that’s a problem for pedestrians of all kinds, not just the blind. Already, people on foot tend to lose when they step into a street in front of a two-ton vehicle – even one that makes plenty of noise.
"The National Federation of the Blind became concerned about new hybrid and electric vehicles in 2003," said Chris Danielson, public relations director for the NFB. "Several of our members had expressed concern to us."
One of them was Debbie Kent Stein, of Illinois. A friend of hers had gotten a Toyota Prius and was boasting about how quiet it was. So Stein "decided it would be good to do a test," Danielson said. "She positioned herself in front of her house and the plan was for her to wave when her friend drove by in his Prius.”
Her friend drove by once, but Stein didn’t wave. He drove by again, but Stein still didn’t wave.
"And she said, 'Have you started the test yet because I’ve been standing here for several minutes.' And her friend said, 'I’ve been past you about five times.'”
So began the federation’s lobbying efforts, which eventually led to the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act passed in early 2011 – just a couple months after the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf first came on the market, ushering in the modern EV era.
General Motors has been working on these sorts of artificial external vehicle sounds even before the Toyota Prius came to town. It started with GM’s first modern-day electric, the EV1, way back in the ‘90s.
"When we first began working on our EV1, it became apparent to us that it was important to be able to have some type of pedestrian alert system because the car was so quiet," said Mike Lelli. He’s a vehicle chief engineer with General Motors. "We had a steering wheel stalk that when you pulled the stalk it chirped the horn."
Today, the sound GM uses on its Bolt EV and Volt hybrid electric cars automatically turns on when the EV is put in gear. It turns off when the natural noises of rolling tires and rushing wind generate enough sound.
Unlike the real noise of gas-powered cars, it’s an engineered audio file that plays from a speaker outside the car. The Nissan Leaf has one too. It's called the VSP, or Vehicle Sounds for Pedestrians system.
A word of caution for wannabe EV drivers who dream about customizing the sounds of their cars.
"The law was very clear that we didn’t want to get into a situation where you essentially had ring tones for cars," said Danielson of the National Federation of the Blind. "We felt very strongly that the sounds needed to be identifiable as automobiles."
NHTSA’s upcoming rule for the artificial sounds EVs can emit is pretty limited. And they’re not much like the natural sounds of gas-powered cars. So in the future, LA traffic might sound more like a gentle whir.