Nighttime Paris traffic

The year is 2030 — just 13 short years from now — and future you is walking down a busy city street, but the traffic is unnervingly quiet. Every car on this 2030 street is electric, after all, meaning there are no rumbles or revvings from passing vehicles. And they are all self-driving, their every motion coordinated by advanced A.I., so there’s no sudden honking as one car cuts off another. The sidewalks of the future might be as loud as ever, but the roads could be silent.

The eerie quiet of electric vehicles isn’t just an issue for tomorrow, as both the United States and European Union have recognized the danger such quiet cars could pose to the safety of visually impaired or simply unwary pedestrians. In 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set a rule mandating electric cars be fitted with audible alert systems, with the administration saying this would prevent 2,400 injuries a year.

But René Weinandy, the head of Noise Abatement in Transport for the German Environment Agency, believes such measures could do more harm than good. As he argues in research presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Accoustical Association, the US and the EU are focusing too much on the danger of pedestrian injury and not enough on the more insidious threat of noise pollution.

“In Germany alone, an estimated 4,000 people die every year from noise-triggered heart attacks — more than are killed in traffic accidents,” Weinandy said in a statement. “So is it really a wise decision to increase the noticeability of electric vehicles in traffic by making them spew noise pollution?”

Electric cars in a Tesla showroom.

Key to Weinandy’s argument is the contention that there’s not yet scientific proof that the proposed acoustic alert systems actually succeed in reducing the danger to pedestrian. There are, however, many studies that demonstrate the health risks of urban noise pollution, linked not just to hearing loss but also to even more serious conditions like cancer and dementia.

“We’re working to change the mindset of the general public: while noise may be simply a nuisance in some situations, it acts as a potent environmental poison in others and should be treated as such,” Weinandy added. “Noise does its harmful job — often without the conscious perception of the people being exposed to it.”

Still, he doesn’t deny the danger that quiet cars pose to pedestrians, just whether this particular fix will do so much environmental damage it undoes whatever benefits electric cars might otherwise offer. His proposal isn’t to callously accept traffic injuries as a necessary trade-off to keep noise levels at a sufficiently healthy low, but rather to see whether there could be alternatives to these noise alert systems to keep people safe.

There are some intriguing possibilities here. Rethinking the design of city streets could be part of the solution, with the construction of more bollards and other sidewalk safety barriers to keep cars away from pedestrians.

Perhaps the advent of the self-driving future may offer the solution, as the cars’ onboard computers could drop the risk of accidental collision with passersby down to nearly zero. Don’t give up on the silent roads of 2030 just yet.