Should there be silent engines in electric cars?

Silent engines for electric cars were introduced to help relieving the noise pollution problem. Yet, the threat that the silent engine may pose to the vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians, especially the blind, has raised the concern of the public. The cost effectiveness of silent engine is also unknown. So, should electric cars’ silent engines be legalized worldwide? Is there any possibility in balancing the use of silent engines and the safety of road users?

For the Silent Engine in Electric Cars

According to the European Environment Agency, much of the noise pollution in Europe arises from traffic. Continuous exposure of such in a busy street can be harmful to human health, aggravating migraines and risks of cardiovascular diseases. Recognising these dire consequences, policy-makers passed laws to mandate continual efforts to quieten combustion engines1. Further, they negotiated the necessity of Acoustic Vehicle Alert System (AVAS), a device to emit artificial engine noises in cars with silent engines, to warn the blind of passing cars. AVAS had been a point of contention amongst EU policymakers. Noise pollution is therefore indubitably a negative externality that, since the introduction of AVAS and the focal discussion on silent engines, has been needlessly placed on the same scale as danger posed to visually impaired pedestrians. This creates a double-edged sword where safety and noise pollution become compromises of each other.

If we operate on system, how then do we ethically decide a balance between safety for the blind and noise pollution of the city? One may follow the Utilitarianism model to make an ethical decision based on benefit to the majority or lesser of two evils. Blind people are a minority of a population. Following this, for the majority’s sake, engines should be silent, AVAS be scrapped and any noise be minimal.

Campaigners concerned about silent engines assumed a fear that accidents involving hybrid cars will rise, yet there are evidence to show otherwise. Research showed that in Japan and Netherlands, there was no observed increase in risks2. Hence prohibiting silent engines so as to improve safety become a questionable.

In addition, AVAS and banning silent engines are not the ideal way to protect the visually handicapped. There exists alternative engineering solutions that yet do not incur costs on the majority. For example, the modification of current traffic lights, to give priority and more flexible time interval for the blind to cross the road. Such traffic lights already exist in Singapore, where the elderly and disabled people are granted longer ‘green man’ to cross when they tap their Greenman+ cards3. This shows silent engines should not be abandoned, as there are other solutions to protect the blind.

Such alternative solutions should be encouraged, instead of focal points on AVAS, silent engines or other parts of the electric car. The design, maintenance or prohibition of any car parts will inevitably incur monetary costs borne by agents in the market for cars. Cost of production will increase for car manufacturers, and consumer price of hybrid cars will increase in the market. However, safety is not a commodity whose costs should be borned by car makers and buyers. Safety should rightfully be ensured and monitored by the public sector and hence costs should be incurred into public goods, without affecting the free market for cars. As such, safety-related policies should be made to public goods such as road signs or traffic lights.

Against the Silent Engine in Electric Cars

Legalizing the implementation of silent engines in electric cars will threaten the safety of the drivers, the cyclists and the pedestrians, especially the blinds. The operation of the silent engine affects the driver’s awareness of the situation of their car engines. Consequently, drivers may lose control of their vehicles and lead to fatal traffic accidents much easier when comparing with diesel engine. The silent engine operates sounds like whispering which can hardly be heard by pedestrians. This highly reduces the consciousness of the pedestrians and the cyclists of the incoming of the electric cars, especially for the blinds. The blinds rely on hearing and the blind stick to guide their ways when crossing the roads. Many roads especially in UK do not have traffic sounding signal and may not even have traffic lights.  Silencing the electric car engines thus strongly restrict the blinds from protecting their own safety through alerting the sound generated by the noise engines while crossing these roads.

According to the US Electric Auto Association, legalizing the silent engine requires an implementation of radar technology and Acoustic Vehicle Alert System that allows electric vehicles to detect when pedestrians and cyclists are in the vicinity of the car and engage the passive sound warning system. Putting such technology in use is not a cost-effective situation as each radar detector costs about USD30000 and electric cars are still uncommon in worldwide, like Hong Kong. Numerous drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are at risk in sacrificing their lives due to the doubtable necessity in attempting to reduce the noise pollution caused by the electric car engines nowadays.

In addition, silent engines of electric car are not yet well-designed for consumers in terms of low battery life span and high maintenance cost. Battery durability is the major determinant of the life expectancy of an electric car for its low life span. Some researches show that the car batteries are exhausted possibly within four to six years of functioning4. New batteries must be bought and installed for electric cars to work again, however, with a bulky size and heavy weight of hundreds to thousands pounds5, car batteries cannot be replaced by consumers in their own garages as easy as replacing spoiled components inside a diesel engine, rather, consumers need to seek professional help from maintenance lorry for replacement, which implies costly maintenance fees. Silent engines of electric cars, specifically the car batteries, should be better revised to ones with longer life spans before electric cars are available for sale. Otherwise, buying a new car component periodically every several years along with high maintenance costs not only harms the interests of consumers, but the generation of enormous metal wastes also possibly induces large-scale environmental crises.  

55: Kiat Long Tay, Yuqi Wang, Hiu Tung Lam, Hok Lam Ting


8 thoughts on “Should there be silent engines in electric cars?

  1. There are many other ways in helping to relieve noise pollution. For instance, there are many noise barriers already built to protect the people around the road being interupted by the noise generated by the vehicles and even factories. There are many reasons causing noise pollution, vehicles is only one of them. Should the government build more noise barriers instead of silent engine which can only tackle one noise source, in order to reduce the noise pollution generated due to other reasons rather than just vehicles?


  2. There are many noise pollution source to be tackle. There are already Noise Barriers exist in world wide to tackle about the noise problem generated by vehicles and even factories. The silent engine can only tackle one noise pollution source while should the government spend money on the technology that can tackle multiple noise source like Noise Barriers? The technology like noise barriers can even protect the safety of the users around and will not harm any pedestrians. Would it be worthwhile to invest a huge amount of tax to silent engines?


  3. There are many noise pollution source to be tackle. There are already Noise Barriers exist in world wide to tackle about the noise problem generated by vehicles and even factories. The silent engine can only tackle one noise pollution source while should the government spend money on the technology that can tackle multiple noise source like Noise Barriers? The technology like noise barriers can even protect the safety of the users around and will not harm any pedestrians. Would it be worthwhile to invest a huge amount of tax to silent engines?


  4. Very competitive arguments above even concerning about the economical aspects! Actually electric cars is becoming more popular around the world, I think if silent engine can be implemented in the earlier stage then the silent engines produce afterwards can be even more mature in the future. It is very important to prevent the noise pollution directly through the source instead of just reducing it after it has been produced. Also, is the silent engine of the electric cars actually cost lower than that of the fuel engine? If it is, it may be an extra attractive way to attract current drivers to turn to a greener car!


  5. Really interested to read this controversial topic and knowing more about the standpoints of both for and against side.
    I think acoustic vehicle alert system would be a nice approach to deal with the pedestrian safety problem as it minimizes the unnecessary engine noise produced at other sides of the car and at the same time be able to alerts the pedestrians of the approach of cars. It reduces the harms to pedestrians from the source!
    The only concern is that would it be difficult for the traffic light systems case to be applied to other regions in the world? Since there may be some regions or countries that are not able to afford the pedestrian alert systems in all traffic points across the nation and some may rather give priority to other aspects like economic development.


  6. Metal waste problems from the engines of electric cars could be difficult to solve. Taxes can be imposed to the prices of electric car for the waste treatment and recycling. It is sometimes quite hard to prevent the production of electronic wastes from machinery. Coping with the waste problems may be more effective than avoiding the production of electric car engines.


  7. Both sides provided persuasive views on the silent engine issue! The for side clarified the feasibility of acoustic vehicle alert system over silence engine with utilitarian model, while the against side stressed on the pedestrian safety matter and the cost effectiveness of the silent engines.
    However, durability, functions and prices of products vary in every commodity genre. It is consumers ‘choice to select a product which the product features suit them best. Consumers will take consideration of product performance and bear the cost if they want to buy electric cars. Therefore, I think that harming consumers ‘interest owing to the battery life expectancy and the cost problem should not necessarily result in the banning of silence engines.


  8. Both sides have their own thoughts. I would like to see more about the way of the effectiveness of implementing the policy and the monitoring work if silent engines of electric cars are being legalized. It would be quite hard for most of the diesel engine users to support the silent engine suggestion. I believe most of these users would not be willing to pay for the technology that was invested to protect the safety of the pedestrians eg. AVAS and radar technology. Moreover, various monitoring work need to be done if the AVAS and radar technologies were applied as if any of the technologies went wrong, then the life of the pedestrians would surely be at high risk especially for the blinds. If theres any suggestion in implementing and monitoring the silent engine, this would make the FOR argument is a stronger one.


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