The entire initiative seems counterintuitive and a bit contradictory, at least on the surface.
In the name of noise-pollution control, automakers have spent decades trying to reduce sound emissions in their machines.
But in an effort to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, federal mandates are being drafted this summer in the United States that are designed to make hybrid and electric vehicles (HEVs) … less quiet.
Two studies by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2009 and 2011 confirmed what the agency already suspected — HEVs operate so quietly they are a apparently a growing safety hazard to cyclists and pedestrians, especially the blind.
“Blind people simply cannot travel safely and independently without hearing vehicle sounds,” said Chris Danielsen from the National Federation of the Blind. “We use the sound of traffic to determine the speed and direction cars are moving, as well as if they are accelerating or decelerating. We got a lot of feedback from members saying they had close calls with these (electric) cars.”
The NHTSA study found that at speeds below 35 m.p.h. (55 km/h) — the speed at which tire and wind noise are negligible — HEVs move so quietly, they are 37 per cent more likely to collide with walkers and 66 per cent more likely to collide with cyclists than traditional gas-powered cars.
These NHTSA findings, coupled with the Pedestrian Safety Act of 2010, have created a federal mandate for noisemakers to be built into all new HEVs by 2017.
Details are still being worked out, but some automakers are wasting no time addressing these upcoming regulations, and one is actually taking to the Internet to find a suitable sound. Ford recently posted its four audible choices on its Facebook page for consumers to vote on which one is the best noise option for its future HEVs. (We’ve set up a direct link to Ford’s media site: tinyurl.com/fordevsounds).
“We’re trying to find a distinct sound that’s pleasing to customers and alerts them of an oncoming vehicle,” said Dave McCreadie, Ford’s noise/vibration supervisor for hybrid and electric vehicles.
“This sound needs to be something that can be integrated into a person’s sound spectrum so they can immediately recognize the noise and associate with an (electric vehicle) approaching … just like we do with emergency-vehicle sirens.”
The Chevrolet Volt hybrid makes a chirping sound when its turn signal is activated and the Nissan Leaf electric car makes a whirling sound moving forward and a chirp in reverse. Toyota spent about two years developing a futuristic Jetson-like noise for its popular Prius hybrid, a unique sound that’s standard on all 2012 models.
Final and firm federal mandates for minimum sound levels remain a few miles up the road. The NHTSA has until 2014 to release its guidelines and put these safety initiatives in place. And several issues will need to be addressed along the way.
Will the artificial noise come from the motor or will it be electronically simulated through a device mounted on or hidden in the front bumper?
Will the driver have control over whether the simulated sound is emitted, or will the warning noise be generated automatically?
Many details remain unsettled but some feelings of government intrusion on the issue do not. Paul Scott is the vice president of Plug In America, an advocacy group that promotes the use of electric and hybrid vehicles. He said that the sound of silence provides much of the appeal to these HEVs and it should not be squelched.
“Quiet cars need to stay quiet. We worked hard to make them that way,” Scott said. “It’s the driver’s responsibility not to hit somebody.”
Scott and anti-noise-pollution groups are making plenty of their own noise with the belief that common sense and diligence should supersede big government on this matter. Their main argument is that the 125 collisions examined by the NHTSA between HEVs and pedestrians/cyclists in the 2009 study provided too small of a sample to offer much credibility.
“I don’t know of any injuries related to this, but it is a concern,” Toyota spokesman John Hanson said of the stealthy hybrids. “It’s a fact that these cars are very quiet and could pose a risk to unsighted people.”
The debate over minimum noise requirements is a lively one, but not a new one.
Back in the age of actual horsepower, the sound of sleigh bells had nothing to do with holiday cheer and everything to do with not getting trampled by a horse. The City of Baltimore even issued a $1 fine to anyone who didn’t make their sleigh noisy enough.
We’ve come a long way since the days of sleigh bells and carriages, but the objectives for improved safety on the roadways remain the same.
For much of the general population, any mandate to increase vehicle noise may seem like a meddling government and a misguided waste of time and money on a problem that’s at best anecdotal.
But for the 1.3 million Americans who are legally or completely blind, electric vehicles can be both silent and deadly, and a little fake noise could be a real lifesaver.