New rules are being planned by the federal government that aim to reduce the chance of blind and vision-impaired people being struck by an electric or hybrid car.

The new rules are expected to follow Europe’s UN Regulation 138 introduced in July, which requires all electric and hybrid vehicles be fitted with an acoustic vehicle alert systems (AVAS) to make a continuous noise of 56 decibels at certain speeds.

Under the rules, drivers may also be allowed to create their own sound provided volume, pitch and frequency change according to the vehicle speed.

Electric vehicles can potentially benefit society in many ways, such as reduction of carbon emissions to mitigate climate change, and particulate pollution and noxious gases to reduce impact on health.

But the silent nature of electric vehicles (EVs) compared to internal combustion engines (ICE) is one potential shortcoming, and research released by Vision Australia and Monash University last year suggested that 35% of vision-impaired people have experienced a collision or near-collision with an EV.

Those statistics were questioned by many at the time, who pointed to the low number of EVs on Australian roads, but the research includes hybrid vehicles, sales of which are led in Australia by Toyota who surpassed 100,000 (non-plug-in) hybrids as of May 2019.

Under the new mandate, all electric and hybrid vehicles (except motorcycles) would be required to make a noise when travelling at 20km/hr or below, bringing Australia in line with Europe and the United States.

Chris Edwards, Vision Australia’s manager of government relations and advocacy has been spearheading the push for the Australian federal government to introduce the new rules.

“The government has listened to our recommendation and is acting in the interest of all road users,” Edwards said in a statement.

“With electric vehicles predicated to make up 90% of the entire Australian vehicle fleet by 2050, this outcome is significant for all pedestrians, especially people who are blind or have low vision who rely more heavily on other sensory systems such as hearing and touch,” he said.

Several carmakers have already added acoustic warning systems in new electric vehicle models, such as Nissan whose latest Leaf released in Australia in July, which when driving at a slow speed makes a high-pitched whistling sound (it is understood that this is already built into current Leafs available here in Australia).

Jaguar has been developing its own sounds, the first of which had a sci-fi style sound but resulted in people looking upwards instead of towards the road. It has since developed a sound for its I-Pace electric SUV in collaboration with members of the UK’s Guide Dogs for the Blind.

BMW has been working with movie score writer Hans Zimmer to create sounds for its futuristic Vision I-Next, and Mercedes-Benz developed this the sound (below) for its EQC which will released in Australia within months.

Both Hyundai and Tesla have been contacted for comment on whether new models available in Australia, including the Hyundai Kona Electric, the Hyundai Ioniq and the Tesla Model 3, have AVAS built in and ready to deploy.

It is not yet clear if existing EV models in Australia will be required to be retrofitted.

Currently, the Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development is developing a “Regulation Impact Statement” for the purpose of proposing a mandate for AVAS in Australia, after which the public will be invited to make their own submissions.

Any recommendations made will then be put out for a period of consultation before the final decision is made by the government whether to enact them.

“The decision makers we presented the issue to needed no convincing about why this important safety feature needed to be fitted into electric vehicles.

“This isn’t going to be an overnight fix, nevertheless we’re pleased significant steps are being taken address what is a serious safety issue for all pedestrians, not just those who are blind or have low vision,” Edwards said.

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