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Hyperloop, hydrogen-powered trains and air taxis. As the 21st century progresses, the way people get from A to B is on the cusp of a major change driven by design and innovation.
While the above technologies may still be a few years away from widespread adoption, that doesn’t mean the change isn’t already underway.
Around the world, national and local governments are trying to reduce emissions and improve urban air quality, with many betting on a growing sector: battery electric vehicles.
There is undoubtedly a dynamic behind the industry. According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency, around 3 million new electric cars were registered last year, a record and an increase of 41% compared to 2019.
Looking ahead, the IEA says the number of electric cars, buses, vans and heavy trucks on the roads – its forecast doesn’t include two- and three-wheel electric vehicles – is projected to reach 145 million by 2030.
If governments step up efforts to meet international energy and climate goals, the global fleet could grow even further, reaching 230 million by the end of the decade.
A changing world
As the number of electric vehicles on the world’s roads increases, society must adapt.
Extensive charging networks, for example, need to be rolled out to meet increased demand and to dispel persistent concerns about “range anxiety” – the idea that electric vehicles cannot make long journeys without losing power and getting stranded.
Another area in which we will notice changes concerns noise: electric vehicles are not only emission-free, but also significantly quieter than their diesel and gasoline cousins.
Read more about electric vehicles from CNBC Pro
This means less noise pollution in urban areas – a clear thing – but it also poses a potential challenge for other road users, especially those with vision problems.
“It can be very difficult for people who are blind or visually impaired to judge traffic,” Zoe Courtney-Bodgener, policy and campaign officer for the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People, told CNBC in a telephone interview.
Courtney-Bodgener explained that more and more “quiet” modes of transport are being used, using the example of bicycles and larger electric and hybrid vehicles.
“If you can’t always or reliably see these vehicles, the sound is even more important,” she continued.
“And if the noise is not there or is not loud enough to be able to reliably detect these vehicles, there is of course a risk, because … you cannot reliably know when a vehicle is approaching you.”
The law of the land
It should be noted that laws and technology have been put in place around the world to address this problem.
For example, in the European Union and the United Kingdom, all new electric and hybrid vehicles must use an audible vehicle warning system, or AVAS for short, from July 1st. This will build on and expand on the previous regulations that came into force in 2019.
According to the rules, the AVAS should step in and make noises when the speed of a vehicle is less than 20 kilometers per hour (about 12 miles per hour) and when it is reversing.
According to a 2019 UK government statement, the sound can be “temporarily turned off by the driver if necessary”.
According to the EU regulation, the noise generated by the AVAS should be “a continuous tone that informs pedestrians and other road users of a vehicle that is in operation.”
“The sound should easily reflect the vehicle’s behavior,” it adds, “and should sound similar to a vehicle of the same category equipped with an internal combustion engine.”
RNIB’s Courtney-Bodgener told CNBC that while her organization was “happy” that the AVAS policy had been translated into UK law, it did not “do everything we expected” to do.
She went on to explain how the speed at which the AVAS turns on might need to be increased to 20 or 30 miles per hour.
“We are not convinced that if … a vehicle is traveling at a speed of 21 miles per hour, for example, it would generate enough noise on its own to be reliably recognized by noise.”
Another problem area concerns older vehicles. “There are already many, many electric and hybrid vehicles that were produced before this legislation came into effect that did not have the sound technology,” she said.
There are currently no plans to retrofit these, she added. “This is worrying because there are already thousands of vehicles on the UK’s roads that do not have AVAS technology.”
From the industry’s point of view, it appears to be satisfied with the existing regulations. In a statement emailed to CNBC, AVERE, The European Association for Electromobility, told CNBC that it supported the “current legislative status quo”.
“The limit of 20 km / h is sufficient, since other noises – especially rolling resistance – take over at this level and are sufficient for pedestrians and cyclists to hear approaching electric and hybrid vehicles,” added the Brussels organization.
“Indeed, requiring European citizens to make additional noise above 20 km / h would deprive European citizens of one of the main advantages of electrification: lower noise levels at city speeds.”
Noise pollution can indeed be a serious problem. According to the European Environment Agency, over 100 million people in Europe are “exposed to harmful environmental noise”. The agency classifies road traffic noise as “a particular public health problem in many urban areas”.
Regarding the need to modernize older cars, AVERE said: “Only a very small proportion of the electric vehicles on European roads would be subject to retrofitting requirements, as many existing vehicles were already equipped with AVAS in anticipation of the new vehicles and that the rules were introduced in good time to accommodate the expected mass consumption of electric vehicles in the coming years. “
Should it emerge that “additional requirements” are needed, AVERE is ready to work with policy makers.
The discussions and debates on this topic are likely to go on for a long time and it is clear that a balance will have to be found in the future.
Whether you think current legislation goes far enough or not, the fact is that these types of systems will become an increasingly important feature of urban travel in the years to come.
Robert Fisher is Head of EV Technologies at the research and consulting company SBD Automotive.
He emailed CNBC that the tests the company had carried out “had shown AVAS to be very effective,” but added that if a pedestrian is unfamiliar with the noise, “may not automatically do so with presence.” an approaching “connect vehicle.”
“Currently, AVAS is mainly hampered by inconsistent legislation and a lack of innovation,” he said before setting a positive tone for the future.
“With the move away from the internal combustion engine, this technology has the potential to become an integral part of a car’s character, a point of brand differentiation and the ability to save lives.”