NHTSA rejects proposal on driver-selectable alert sounds for EVs

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top auto safety regulator has rejected a proposal that would have allowed automakers to install several driver-selectable pedestrian alert sounds in each of their hybrid and electric vehicles.

The 2019 proposal would have allowed automakers to install “any number of compliant sounds” on each hybrid and electric make, model, body style and trim level they produce for sale in the U.S.

The agency under the Trump administration had requested comment on the proposal, including whether the safety standard should allow more than one sound and, if so, how many sounds should be allowed.

NHTSA in statement Tuesday said the proposal is not being adopted because of a “lack of supporting data.”

“The great majority of the comments on the [Notice of Proposed Rule-Making], including those submitted by advocacy organizations for the blind and by people who are blind or who have low vision, did not favor the proposal to allow hybrid and electric vehicles to have an unlimited number of different pedestrian alert sounds,” the agency said. “Most of those comments favored more uniformity, rather than less, in the number and types of alert sounds allowed.”

A final rule outlining the agency’s decision on the proposal and other amendments is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.

The 2019 proposal was issued in response to a joint petition submitted to NHTSA in 2017 by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Global Automakers, which pressed the agency for amendments to the standard that would allow each hybrid and EV to be equipped with a suite of several pedestrian alert sounds that drivers could choose from rather than one sound.

The two prominent industry groups — which merged in 2020 to form the Alliance for Automotive Innovation — argued the sound options were important for consumer acceptance of those vehicles in the future.

The alliance said it is “disappointed” by the agency’s decision.

In a joint letter sent March 16 to then-Acting Administrator Steven Cliff, the alliance and the National Federation of the Blind urged the agency to reconsider its termination of the proposed rule-making and argued that “without the option to select an alternative compliant alert sound, consumers who dislike the alert sound that is initially equipped with their vehicle may seek to disable the alert sound altogether.”

While the standard does not allow anyone other than a manufacturer or dealer to disable or modify the sound, the two associations in the letter pointed to a “worrying trend of online tutorials” that “provide specific steps to take to disable the pedestrian warning sound in their vehicles.”

The agency finalized rules in 2018 requiring EVs and hybrids — or “quiet vehicles” — to meet minimum sound requirements to help pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users detect their presence and reduce the risk that these vehicles will be involved in low-speed pedestrian crashes.

The standard requires those vehicles to be detectable when operating at speeds below about 20 mph. Automakers also must ensure that all vehicles of the same make, model, model year, body type and trim level have the same alert sound.

The standard does not prevent certain types of sound from being used, but some of the technical requirements could make it difficult for automakers to use sounds that mimic animals and other “natural sounds,” according to the agency.

The phase-in requirement began in September 2019, and full compliance was slated for Sept. 1, 2020. Under that schedule, half of EVs and hybrids manufactured from Sept. 1, 2019, to Aug. 31, 2020, and all EVs and hybrids manufactured on or after Sept. 1, 2020, would have had to comply with the federal safety standard.

In August 2020, NHTSA — responding to an emergency petition submitted by the alliance— said it would give the industry more time to comply because of disruptions in global supply chains caused by the coronavirus pandemic and significant economic effects.

The new phase-in period was adjusted to March 1, 2020, and ended Feb. 28, 2021. NHTSA did not change the required 50 percent phase-in threshold.


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