The age-old question about electric vehicles and noise

Photo credit: dcbel

by Jeanine Botta, MPH, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

A special issue of Noise News International, published on May 12, 2023, features an article that asks, “Will EVs Make Our Cities Quieter?” Authors Erik Bühlmann, Daniel Schweizer and Felix Schlatter designed a limited study comparing sound levels among electric and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in three driving scenarios. The authors also analyzed tire noise statistics and considered differences in typical vehicle weight.

The authors concluded that electric vehicles that are accelerating or driven in stop-and-go situations will emit lower sound levels than ICE vehicles, but at speeds between 20 and 60 kilometers per hour, there will not be significant differences. They also acknowledged that the impact of acoustic vehicle alerting systems and other factors should be considered in future studies.

In a Curious Kids column published in August 2022, a reader asked, “If all the vehicles in the world were to convert to electric, would it be quieter?” Expert Erica D. Walker, ScD, MS, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, responded that at lower speeds in some circumstances, electric vehicles might be significantly quieter than ICE vehicles. But at higher speeds, sound level differences would not be significant. 

In a blog post referencing the Curious Kids column, I added that decades of work leading to quieter ICE cars, quieter tires and improved pavement share credit for reducing ambient noise levels caused by vehicles. Additionally, some electric cars are offering nostalgic muscle car sounds using external speakers intended for use with acoustic vehicle alerting systems.

Some electric vehicles also feature horn sounds with more than 12 non-emergency scenarios, including lock confirmation, remote left in vehicle, remote removed from vehicle, battery charge assist, battery overheating, charge cord unplugged and tire fill assist. Features listed in the owner manual are often found across models for a given automaker, and with multiple brands.

Electric vehicles can share credit for creating quieter ambient sound levels in certain contexts. Automakers could make our world significantly quieter by daring to eliminate unnecessary alerts and sound effects from their products.

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