What’s all the noise about silent electric vehicles? | The Driven
Photo by Max Lederer on Unsplash

Wow. For decades, I used the excuse “loud pipes save lives” to justify motorcycle exhaust systems that unleashed furious power – and noise.

To me, it seemed that in the case of internal combustion engine vehicles, sound equals power equals speed equals cool.

Over time (i.e. as I got older) I realised that riding defensively and anticipating driver behaviour actually made a far bigger difference as cars became better insulated from outside noise.

But like any revhead, the noise was addictive because of what it meant. Now, we are told, noise can in fact save lives. Is this just a highly emotional reaction to the loss of power, or just another pretext to slow down the rise of electrics?

With the exception of the current generation, almost everyone else on the planet associates noisy vehicles with strong memories of motor racing legends, dream machines and bravery. It connects our pre-driving days with the realised dream of freedom.

In my case, a 1954 recording of Dicky Dale riding the legendary Moto Guzzi V8 at full noise on the Isle of Man was so visceral, I used it as a ring tone for years.

It’s no wonder we love the noise and believe me, I get it. (Editor’s note: I don’t).

Since switching to an electric motorcycle five years ago I have had to come to terms with losing this noise.

As I have written about before, this was much easier to overcome than I anticipated because the “seat of the pants” feel of brutal electric torque is actually the outcome we are seeking with the noise. I soon realised I was getting all the benefits and none of the downside.

No noise means more fun times at full throttle and no one complains. It means I avoid the significant expense and maintenance of exhaust systems. It means I can’t get fined for excessive noise but still get the power.

However, I did have to learn the new risks associated with (almost total) silence. My Zero does make some noise (around 30DB according to crude measurements) but it didn’t take me long to realise two critical things:

1): Being silent, I had to adopt the philosophy “no one can see me, no one can hear me and everyone wants to kill me”. This change in my attitude has helped keep me safe way more than any free breathing Lafranconi on a big V Twin.

2): Pedestrians are particularly at risk because the little noise I do make drops significantly at less than 20kmh. So as a rider, I adopt a tweaked version of the philosophy above – “no one can see me, no one can hear me and I don’t want to kill anyone”.

The recent release of a study by Vision Australia looked at this issue in relation to vision impaired Australians and the reaction amongst electric motorcycle owners has been split.

The research study was relatively small and participants were self-selecting, so many questioned its validity. However, it was conducted by research professionals, so it can’t be summarily rejected.

The study analysed the experiences, number of collisions and near misses between 246 vision impaired Australians and fully electric cars, hybrid cars and bicycles.

In summary, the study found that of the total participants 35 per cent (86 people) had experienced some type of event with electric or hybrid vehicles. Around 23 per cent of those (20 people) had experienced a collision of some sort with an electric or hybrid vehicle and 77 per cent reported near misses.

The headline of 35 per cent caused some angst amongst EV owners and I tend to agree with the sentiment that this was a bit deceiving.

Of the total group only 8 [er cent experienced a collision with an electric or hybrid vehicle which is very different to an attention grabbing headline that implies we are busy mowing down 35 per cent of all vision impaired Australians (133,000 people). We’re not.

Whilst there are clearly risks and there is work to be done by drivers and manufacturers, 20 affected people in a study of 264 should not necessarily definitively imply that 133,000 vision impaired people (35% of the 380,000) have been hit by wreck less, silent EV drivers –  but that’s how it read.

Notably and perhaps controversially, the study also found that of the total participants 78% (192 people) had experienced an event with a bicycle. Of those 25% (67 people) had experienced a collision.

In pure numerical terms, almost ten times as many vision impaired Australians were hit by bicycles as electric vehicles.

So, this raises a lot of questions about the statistical issues around the number of electric and hybrid vehicles and bicycles, relative to the population of vision impaired people.

On the surface, it implies that with only 6,000 or so ev’s on the road (compared to hundreds of thousands of bicycles), the risks are dramatically higher – which is intuitively logical.

However, the risks, circumstances and attitudes and experience of both drivers and pedestrians are significant variables.

There is no doubt that vision (and or the hearing impaired) face significantly higher risks and the study provides a valuable insight into this for those of us lucky enough to have full vision and hearing.

Several conclusions were reached in the study including the suggestion that audible alerts should be fitted to ev’s and come into operation under 20kmh where the majority of pedestrian risk exists.

This is not an outrageous suggestion and is in fact already a requirement in several countries and the subject of ongoing study.

It also mentioned the more advanced vehicles use of collision avoidance (Lidar etc) and also the emergence of apps that can help the most vulnerable road users such as the vision impaired which is a rapidly evolving potential solution too.

So ironically, after getting rid of my noise maker, I may end up being required to fit an artificial noise maker to my electric motorcycle. Funny old world.

It really made me think hard about a cohort of society that needs our help as drivers to be safe and added a new layer to my thinking. As I said the study authors via email, if raising awareness was a desirable outcome of the study, they have succeeded in the local electric motorcycle owner space already – we’re all talking about it.

This is an important subject we should be discussing and studying as owners, users, technologists and pedestrians.

It raises broader issues and questions that should be debated about vehicle and environmental noise in general as cities grow.

It raises questions about the geographic diversity of risk. It raises questions about how drivers should be trained with the inevitable rise of ev’s in the future.

However, let’s not create hysteria that feeds the luddites or enforce more draconian rules on an emerging industry before we look at all the possibilities and variables.

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