Why We Drive Electric: They’re Quieter

By Paul Gipe

One of the first things you notice about driving an electric vehicle is the absence of engine noise. The cabin is quiet until you’re going fast enough to hear road noise or the whoosh of the wind around the windows.

This becomes even more noticeable when you return to driving a conventional vehicle and start to drive off. It’s suddenly a lot noisier than you thought. It’s almost shocking the difference. For years you’ve learned to tune out the engine noise of a conventional vehicle except at high speeds where the engine is straining and the noise is hard to ignore.

EVs are so quiet at slow speeds that by law they are required to generate their own noise to warn pedestrians that the vehicle is coming.

An EV is like a Prius on steroids. A prius turns off the engine when you bring the car to a stop. The car is “on” but the engine has been turned off. When you push the accelerator pedal, the Prius’ battery drives the car until the engine kicks in. At a stop light, for example, a Prius is silent until the stop light turns green and you take off.

When I first drove a Prius, I had trouble telling if the car was running or not. I couldn’t tell when it was “on” and when it was “off” until the traction battery was depleted and the engine started up.

In Europe, where people are more efficiency conscious than in North America, some cars turn the engine off when you come to a stop even though the car has no traction battery. As soon as you push in the clutch, the engine starts again and you can hear the engine noise in the cabin. This is bewildering to a North American driver who is trained to think the engine has died because there’s no noise.

When you come to a stop in an EV, there’s no engine noise to alert you that the car is “on.” You have to learn to read new cues–the lighted “power” button, or the dash display–to know that the car is ready to proceed when you are. This is similar to the Prius.

However, when you press the accelerator, the car begins to move silently until you reach a speed where you can hear a slight hum from the inverter that converts DC from the traction battery into AC used to power the electric motor.

Under hard acceleration or deceleration you can hear the inverter hum more loudly. You might also hear the subtle whine of the electric motor, but that’s all you’ll hear.

At highway speeds, the only noise you hear is the tires on the pavement and the rush of the wind.

Some owners argue that they feel less drained after a long drive in an EV compared to how they would normally feel after a long drive in a conventional vehicle because of the EV’s quieter cabin.