Beep, beep, beep: audible safety alerts for e-scooters being road-tested in central London

·4-min read
Beep, beep, beep: audible safety alerts for e-scooters being road-tested in central London

A trial of e-scooters fitted with audible alert systems to warn pedestrians has been launched in London.

Tier, one of the three firms operating the Transport for London-approved e-scooter hire scheme across 10 boroughs, has begun on-street testing of three different sounds to see which is most effective.

The trials are taking place on the segregated cycleway in Park Lane and in Exhibition Road in Kensington. Pedestrian volunteers, including people with vision impairment, are being asked which alert from an approaching e-scooter they find easiest to hear.

However, when the Standard joined the Park Lane trials, passengers waiting at bus stops seemed unable to hear the scooter alert because of the high level of background traffic noise.

About 100 e-scooters will be retro-fitted with advanced “sound boxes” this summer under the trial. Once a winner is selected, the electronic alert - which sounds continuously while the e-scooter is being ridden - will be fitted to the fleets operated by Tier, Dott and Lime.

The move could also revolutionise a largely lawless industry – private e-scooters can be bought legally but a ban on their use on public roads or pavements is widely flouted.

E-scooters, which are also banned from TfL services because of the fire risk from their batteries, are seen by many pedestrians as a menace because approaching riders cannot be heard.

Checking the pulse: The Tier e-scooter trial in Exhibition Road (Tier)
Checking the pulse: The Tier e-scooter trial in Exhibition Road (Tier)

Fred Jones, Tier’s vice president and regional general manager, said the “acoustic vehicle alert” had been devised as a safety feature for the battery-powered scooters, which weigh 20kg and reach speeds of 12.5mph.

He said: “When e-scooters came to the UK, one of the overwhelming concerns, particularly from those with visual impairments, was the potential safety risk of a silent e-scooter.

“We wanted to develop a sound that would alert pedestrians to an oncoming e-scooter to improve the safety and better harmonise and integrate e-scooters into our city streets.

“Over the course of the summer and into the autumn we are going to roll it out in a wider-scale pilot on the streets of London, before ramping it out across our whole fleet in the UK.”

The research, which Tier is funding, will be offered to other e-scooter operators and manufacturers. Mr Jones said the aim was for a single “universal” sound  to be created, to help pedestrians to associate it with e-scooters.

“It can appear not just on our scooters but on all operators’ scooters, so there is a universal sound. That enhances the safety of the whole industry.”

Various options have been tested for the last year, including at UCL’s Pearl (Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory) research facility in Dagenham.

The e-scooter trial began in London in June 2021 and has a good safety record, with no fatalities and 26 serious injuries reported from 2.3m trips in just under two years.

By comparison, privately owned e-scooters have a far higher casualty rate and account for the vast majority of the 1,437 injuries reported across Britain in the year to last June, including 12 deaths - 11 riders and one pedestrian.

Grant Waters, an acoustic consultant at Anderson acoustics, which is working on the trial, said: “What we found with the Pearl testing was that the more impulsive or ‘pulse’ type sound was really important in catching people’s attention in a wide range of environments, quiet or busy.

“It allows people to raise their attention without it having to be really loud. The big challenge is to alert people to a sound without alarming them.

“We are trying to make it acceptable for the majority of people but it needs to meet the needs of people who are quite vulnerable on the road, which is why we are doing the testing focused on people with visual impairment.”

He said the three shortlisted alerts were all similar. “They have that impulsiveness,” he said.

“They have a more tonal element but with slightly different combinations of sound, whether that is a ‘broadband’ sound that has lots of different frequencies to increase the chances of hearing it above other sounds.”

Helen Sharp, TfL’s e-scooter trial lead, said: “We’re really pleased to see the e-scooter operators working with University of College London on the next stage of testing for a sound for rental e-scooters to alert people of their approach.

“This testing moves us closer to finding a solution that would make it easier for people to know that an e-scooter is near them, in particular people who are visually impaired.”