U.S. will finalize long-delayed ‘quiet cars’ rules

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Obama administration said Wednesday it will finalize in November long delayed rules requiring “quiet cars” to add new alerts to warn pedestrians.

At an event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said action was coming. "Our National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will soon issue a final rule on sound requirements for electric and hybrid vehicles so people who are visually impaired can hear them coming," Foxx said.

Under a 2010 law from Congress, NHTSA was supposed to issue the final regulation by Jan. 3, 2014. The agency has repeated missed deadlines. NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said Wednesday the regulation would be unveiled in November. “They are too quiet now,” Rosekind said. “We will be able to hear them at intersections from now on.”

In an interview Wednesday, Rosekind said the agency had to conduct additional research after announcing the proposal in 2013, but he declined to specify what changes NHTSA made since unveiling its initial proposal more than two-and-a-half years ago. “We’re trying to make sure things move quicker through the system,” said Rosekind, who has headed the agency since December.

That means automakers will have until at least the 2018 model year to begin meeting the requirements. Automakers get at least 18 months to comply with all new vehicle regulations under federal law.

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

In July 2014, NHTSA said it didn'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.

Last July, 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," 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 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.

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.

NHTSA expects the proposal will cost the auto industry about $23 million the first year, and estimates the additional per-vehicle cost at $35.

Automakers are considering reprogramming an existing alert sound control module to make the necessary sounds. 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.

The sounds would have to be audible in a range of street and background sounds when the vehicle is traveling at low speeds.

Automakers 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 stop light 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.

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."

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," they said.

Rosekind said NHTSA is also working on a project looking at the "illegal fraudulent use of disabled parking placards."