Each EV car maker gets to decide on their own annoying sound

Dear Car Talk:

I bought a 2023 Honda CR-V hybrid sports touring car last month.

I immediately noticed the sound the car makes whenever it backs up. It sounded to me like something could be wrong with the engine, so I took the car back to the dealership and talked to the service department manager. He listened as I backed up and “assured” me the sound is to let pedestrians know I was backing up.

I’ve heard other cars and trucks make an audible beeping sound, and I would think that makes more sense. Did Honda goof with this model and they’re claiming the noise is by design in order to avoid a recall? BTW, I find the sound really annoying.

P. S. My husband and I listen to your NPR podcast every week and never find that annoying. Thank you.

— Kathy

Keep listening to the podcast, Kathy. It’ll get more annoying. I promise.

Your dealer is correct. Electric vehicles (and hybrids like yours operating under electric power) can be so quiet at low speeds, that pedestrians don’t hear them.

Now, you could argue that if they just looked up from their phones while crossing the street, that would solve the problem. But it’s not just street crossing that’s the issue. Cars mix with pedestrians in parking lots or when a vehicle is backing out of a driveway and crossing a sidewalk.

So, NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) made a rule that any vehicle operating on electric power has to make an audible noise when it’s traveling below about 19 mph — to make sure that pedestrians can hear it coming. Above that speed, tire noise announces a car’s arrival.

And while they set certain parameters for the noise, like how loud it has to be, they left it up to each car maker to decide exactly what sound to use.

Most have settled for a vaguely “futuristic electric motor-like” sound. But I guess, in your opinion, Honda shopped in the Annoying Sound bin. Hey, it could be worse, Kathy. They could have played our podcast as a pedestrian warning.

It’d be nice if everyone could choose their own sound, like you choose the ringtone on your phone. But, somehow, I don’t see government regulators approving my son’s AC/DC “Highway to Hell” backup sound.

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 2017 Toyota Prius with 58,000 miles. Do I need to have the cooling fan motor cleaned periodically? I do not have pets or children, do not drive on dusty roads, or drive in areas with extreme temperatures. My dealer recommended this.

— Julia

Your car has two cooling fan motors, Julia. One of them is the traditional one, that helps push air through the radiator, to keep the internal combustion engine from overheating. That one does not need to be cleaned.

But you have a second fan that cools your hybrid battery. And you don’t want that fan to get so dirty that your battery runs hot, because that will shorten its life. The hybrid battery is located under and behind the rear seat on your Prius. And if you look at the base of the rear seats (where your calves would be if you were sitting back there), you’ll see a vent.

Air gets sucked in through that vent, at different speeds — depending on how warm the battery gets. If you used your Prius to carry hay bales on your ranch or if you had a golden retriever that rides back there, you can imagine that the fan can get dirty over time and lose efficiency.

But neither of those describes your situation, Julia. Fortunately, that vent also has a filter. So, if you want to give yourself some peace of mind, you can ask any mechanic to start by inspecting the filter for you.

That’s a 5-minute job (as opposed to cleaning the fan, which can take a couple of hours). You just pop off the vent cover, pull out the filter, and have a look. If the filter is really filthy, or you find your lost Angora cat in there, that indicates that it’s not a bad idea to have the fan itself cleaned.

If the filter isn’t particularly dirty, you can just replace it (or even clean it with compressed air and put it back) and keep driving.

I’d say that unless your car is dusty, dirty, or you’re missing a cat, you shouldn’t need to clean the fan itself until you get to around 100,000 miles, if ever. Until then, check and clean the filter once in a while, and you should be fine.