Washington — Major automakers say the Obama administration's "quiet cars" rule to help blind pedestrians avoid electric vehicles and other nearly silent vehicles would result in warning sounds that are too loud.
Two trade groups representing Detroit's Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and other major Asian and European automakers raised serious concerns about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's proposed rules mandating minimum sound levels to warn the visually impaired as well as bicyclists.
The rule "is too complicated and is unnecessarily prescriptive. If implemented as proposed, it would result in alert sounds that are louder than necessary, create driver and occupant annoyance and cost more than necessary," said the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Association of Global Automakers in joint written comments to NHTSA filed late Friday.
NHTSA's proposal, mandated in 2010 by Congress and unveiled in January, sets minimum sound levels for hybrid and electric vehicles to help make pedestrians, especially visually impaired people, aware of approaching vehicles.
Automakers said the proposed rule would require sounds "that are too loud and too complicated" and would be louder than some high-performance sports cars.
In fact, some sports cars would not be able to pass the tests, the automakers said.
Electric and hybrid vehicles do not rely on traditional engines; at low speeds they can be hard to hear.
NHTSA estimates the odds of a hybrid vehicle being involved in a pedestrian crash are 19 percent higher compared with traditional gas- or diesel-powered vehicles. For a car-bicycle crash, it's 38 percent higher.
The rules are supposed to be phased in starting in September 2014. Automakers said the timetable "is not possible." and they want NHTSA to completely revise its proposal and publish it before issuing a final regulation.
If the rules don't change, automakers want to scrap the phase-in and make the new sounds required in 2018.
NHTSA expects the proposal will cost the auto industry about $23 million the first year, and estimates the additional per-vehicle cost at $35.
But automakers note that no cars can currently meet the requirements. Automakers are considering reprogramming an existing alert sound control module to make the necessary sounds. They say that will take significant time to develop, source components and certify the new systems. But automakers say the costs of components could be five times as high as NHTSA estimated.
Automakers want the rules to apply to speeds of 12.4 miles per hour or lower, while NHTSA has proposed the rules apply to speeds up to 18.6 miles per hour. Automakers argue that tire noise interferes with alert sounds above 12.4 miles per hour.
Reached Monday, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland declined to comment.
But in January he said the "proposal would allow manufacturers the flexibility to design different sounds for different makes and models while still providing an opportunity for pedestrians, bicyclists and the visually impaired to detect and recognize a vehicle and make a decision about whether it is safe to cross the street." The sounds would have to be audible in a range of street and background sounds when the vehicle is traveling at low speeds.
The automakers want a new meeting with NHTSA to talk about ways to harmonize U.S. regulations with those in Japan and the European Union. The manufacturers note that requiring continuous sounds at low speeds or when stopped at a red light would conflict with what Japan and the European Union are planning. They have called that "unacceptable due to noise pollution concerns."
Requiring continuous sounds from cars at a stoplight could also mask the sound of an oncoming traditional car, automakers say.
NHTSA is allowing automakers to have a significant range of choices about the sounds it chooses for its vehicles, but the characteristics of the sounds must meet certain minimum requirements. NHTSA says each vehicle of the same make and model would need to emit the same sound or set of sounds.
NHTSA estimates the proposal will lead to 2,800 fewer pedestrian and cyclist injuries over the life of each model year, compared to vehicles without sound.