The Sounds of Silence

ecar4While there had been experiments with steam powered road vehicles since the 1700s, they did not succeed commercially as they were cumbersome.  While the steam powered vehicles made their way into locomotives, it was not until electric road vehicles were invented in the 1830s that powered road vehicles became practical. 

These first electric cars were powered by non rechargeable primary cells and were simply carriages and buggies and mostly contraptions of interest to intellectuals. While they made some huge advances and possibilities for transportation, they did not take off at that time due to their batteries not being rechargeable.  Others would improve upon the design, using rechargeable batteries, and electric vehicles would actually become much more practicable.  There were electric taxis in New York City in the 1870s, and by 1899-1900, 28% of New York’s taxis were electric cars built mostly by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia, outselling all other types, steam, and gas powered.  

As  gasoline vehicles were improved, the electric cars gradually disappeared from the market.  This was primarily due to the need to travel greater distances and the cost of gasoline was minimal and gas-powered vehicles could travel much longer distances than the electric vehicles. In today’s marketplace research and development has made electric vehicles practical and popular again. The problem is the sound that surrounds them.  They make no noise.  

Except for that brief electric period, transportation has always made noise. Prior to the automobile the horses hooves were the noise. (Click on the horse hooves for a sample).  No matter if it is the steam engine, or the “putt-putt” or backfire of a Hupmobile or Model T Ford, noise is always part of transportation.  Electric automobiles making no sound at all have the potential to cause accidents with pedestrians who do not hear their approach. This problem disappeared with the declining sales of electric vehicles in the early 20th century.  ecarLater most vehicles had horns that could alert their approach.  The most popular of these horns was the Klaxen horn emitting the famous  “AOOGAH” sound, invented by none other than Miller Reese Hutchinson known to audiologists  as the inventor of the first hearing aid in 1898.   

Electric Cars in 2016


While sales are slow today, the future is bright for electric vehicles which are projected to sell almost 400,000 by the year 2030.  Electric-car technology has come a long way during the past decade, with advances in battery capacity, range and remote charging sites in the US and Europe.  The huge sales figures projected between now and 2030 will basically revolutionize the auto industry. Most major car companies have begun working on either a hybrid or pure battery powered car.  Currently, here are some 29 vehicles in various stages of development that are either in the marketplace or soon will be.  While electric vehicles were expensive at first, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are less than 50,000, and with the tax deductions they are attractive pricewise.  Others that are under development will be cost even less.   A ecar6performance version of the electric car, the Tesla, is in the process of changing the luxury car market to an electric car market.  Since 2012 their sales have increased drastically and continue to increase, with 4 wheel drive and high performance models now available.  Other manufacturers hybrid and electric sales are also increasing steadily as consumers become more used to the ideal of an electric vehicle. 

The Problem With Electric Vehicles

While it might look as though the use of electric cars has no real drawbacks.  It seems like a win-win for the environment: no gasoline to buy, quietness, and no drive train humps in the cabin. Electric vehicles, however, have virtually silent motors and this is what presents a concern and offers a set of challenges to manufacturers. Electric cars emit almost no sound at low speeds, potentially posing a threat to cyclists,  pedestrians as well as the hearing and visual impaired. Although there is no formal data on injuries caused by electric vehicles,  the European Union takes the threat of possible accidents due to the silence of these vehicles seriously enough that it has proposed legislation making acoustic warning sounds mandatory.  A United Nations council on transport issues has discussed common rules and are expected to issue guidelines this year, according to Verband der Automobilindustrie, the German automotive association.   The problem is especially an issue at slow speeds.  Electric cars are mainly silent at speeds slower than 30 kilometers (19 miles) per hour. At faster speeds, tire and wind noises kick in as alerting devices.   Some believe that some noise should be emitted from these vehicles ecar7for safety reasons.  From the manufacturer point of view, this undercuts a unique selling point of electric vehicles, its soundlessness.

BMW, maker of the i3 hatchback, and Volkswagen, maker of the tiny e-Up!, want to keep the din of electric vehicles at a minimum and will add sound only if regulations are imposed requiring them. Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Motors, said that electric cars should direct “a pleasant-sounding noise” as a gentle warning to nearby people rather than emitting sound all the timeFor a number of years designers have experimented with added sounds called external pedestrian alerts that would warn those nearby of a car approaching.   In the Nissan Leaf, their system called “Approaching Vehicle sound for Pedestrians” sound is set off automatically at speeds of 16 MPH or less, emitting a noise from a speaker in the front of the car that sounds like a muted version of a Harrier Jet taking off.   According to Nissan,ecar at 19 MPH the Leaf’s wheels generate enough noise to turn pedestrians heads, so the speaker automatically shuts off.  In reverse, the Leaf sounds like something from a “Star Trek” fan’s garage, emitting a “phasers on stun” sound effect. There is no industry standard for these sound effects and the regulations are only beginning in various countries.

How about we just make them all sound like a ’67 Chevy SS 396….which would make anyone move out of the way!  (Click on the Chevy)

Another point is that those will electric cars not only obtain a tax break for their purchase, but bypass the road tax that is built into gasoline paid by all that use gas powered vehicles….but that is another topic for another day!


Tschampa, D. (2014). Electric cars are getting engine sounds to make them safer.  Bloomberg.  Retrieved November 20, 2016.

Quaid, J. (November 10, 2016).  A vehicle’s sound system can be a matter of life and death.  New York Times.  Retrieved November 20, 2016.


Left Coast Classics (2016).  1967 SS396 Engine sound.  You Tube.  Retrieved November 21, 2016.

About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.


  1. Another problem with electric cars are the lack of a tax basis to pay for roads and bridges. At the present time gas taxes pay for these items at the state and national level, but electric cars use these benefits without a corresponding tax fee.

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