July 24, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Automakers urge NHTSA to delay 'quiet car' rules

Washington — Automakers want the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to delay the introduction rules requiring “quiet cars” to add new alerts to warn pedestrians — because the agency is behind schedule in adopting the final regulation.

Under a 2010 law from Congress, NHTSA was supposed to issue the final regulation by Jan. 3 of this year. But according to its most recent update, NHTSA says it doesn’t expect to finalize the rules requiring electric vehicles and other quiet cars to add sounds until the end of April 2015. The agency has been studying the issue since 2007.

In a letter posted on NHTSA’s website Thursday, the two top auto trade groups — the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Association of Global Automakers — asked the agency to waive the phase-in period that was planned for 2016 and require full compliance in September 2018.

“Unfortunately, the final rule was not published prior to the Jan. 4, 2014 congressional deadline and based on the ongoing dialogue that has been occurring between NHTSA and stakeholders, it is apparent that there remains a great deal of uncertainty as to the content of the final requirements,” the letter said. “The agency should forgo the phase-in and go directly to full implementation” on Sept. 1, 2018, because “manufacturers will have very little time to develop and put into the production compliant systems in time.”

Automakers said if NHTSA doesn’t drop the phase-in schedule it should push it back to begin in September 2017 and to allow automakers with three or fewer EVs to be exempt from compliance until 2018.

The alliance represents Detroit’s Big Three automakers, Volkswagen AG, Toyota Motor Corp., and others, while Global Automakers represents Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Corp., and others.

The groups warned in the letter that “the systems will also be subject to NHTSA’s recall and remedy requirements, they must be engineered to withstand harsh operating environments for many years of operation. A careful and thorough development is a necessity if the components are going to not only be compliant but also durable.”

NHTSA proposed the rules in January 2013 to require minimum sound levels from electric vehicles, hybrids and other quiet cars to warn pedestrians. It sets minimum sound levels for hybrid and electric vehicles to help make all pedestrians, especially visually impaired people, aware of approaching vehicles.

In 2013, the groups called the rules too complicated and 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.”

A NHTSA spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2013, NHTSA said it planned to phase in the new rules starting in the 2016 model year over three years. It expects the proposal will cost the auto industry about $23 million during the first year. NHTSA estimates the cost of adding a speaker system to comply with the requirements to be around $35 per vehicle. But automakers say the costs of components could be five times as high as that estimate.

The new rules would also apply to electric motorcycles and heavy-duty vehicles. But the rules would not apply to quiet traditional internal combustion engines or those equipped with “stop-start” fuel-saving technology that shuts off the motor at intersections. NHTSA said it may in the future opt to require sounds in those vehicles.

NHTSA estimates the odds of a hybrid vehicle being involved in a pedestrian crash is 19 percent higher compared with traditional gas- or diesel-powered vehicles. For a bicycle crash, it’s 38 percent higher. The sounds would need to be detectable under a wide range of street noises and other ambient background sounds when the vehicle is traveling less than 18 mph.

NHTSA is considering allowing hybrid and electric vehicles to meet the minimum sound requirements for the backing scenario with a beeping sound similar to the sound made by a backing truck.” The agency is allowing automakers to have a significant range of choices about the sounds it chooses for its vehicles, but they must meet certain requirements.

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. Requiring continuous sounds from cars at a stop light could also mask the sound of an oncoming traditional car, automakers say.