• Jun 23rd 2010 at 11:52AM
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Nissan Leaf – Click above for high-res image gallery

Recently, Nissan unveiled it's "Approaching Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians" (VSP), a wonky name for the noise added to the upcoming Leaf electric vehicle (EV) at low speeds. Doing so immediately ignited a debate about the aural aesthetics of the noise itself, but it also indirectly brought more attention to the issue of adding noise to cars in the first place. For most of a year, it's been bubbling under the surface, since the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has instigated legislators to believe that with their (in theory) quieter motors, hybrids and plug-ins are pedestrian-killing machines in the making. Initially, there was lots of hand-wringing over the Leaf's acoustics specifically, whose tones many people found off-putting when heard in the initial videos. This was soon replaced by a fair amount of placation by the journalists and stakeholders flown by Nissan to Japan to test the Leaf in person. "Don't worry about the regulation", we've essentially been told in various blog posts, "the Leaf sounds aren't so bad in person." Except, this isn't about the Nissan Leaf – and it's not really about blind people either. Or rather, it shouldn't be.

The Leaf sounds might be relevant to this discussion if they were indicative of the sound every other manufacturer might add to its hybrids and plug-ins, or even of the noise and volume level that would be "approved" by the NFB. The former isn't known, and the NFB is already complaining about the Leaf. More, even if the Leaf's VSP "isn't that bad," does that make it preferable to having no extra noise at all? Years of working with EV drivers tells me they'd rather have the latter. The EV1, in fact, had a back-up beeper not unlike the Leaf's – and in an ongoing "wish list" drivers kept over several years of the various features they'd like to see added or changed, getting rid of that beeper (and other passive unnecessary noises) ranked consistently in the top spot. But what the EV1 also had was its own driver-engaged pedestrian alert, which the drivers loved and was highly effective, enough so that GM is deploying it in the Volt. Unfortunately, such systems won't even be considered by the NFB.

(This article continues after the jump)

To the extent that quieter vehicles might present a problem, the blind community is hardly the largest potentially affected group. Pedestrians in general – many of whom have less sensitive hearing than the blind and are often distracted with iPods and cell phones – and cyclists would be affected too. Of course the blind should be considered, but only as part of a much broader conversation. After all, we're all blind to a vehicle approaching from behind. But adding sound to transportation creates other problems – raising the general ambient noise makes it that much harder to detect any one vehicle, let alone oncoming bicycles and other pedestrian hazards. There are economic issues for communities located along freeways and major streets, whose property values are often lower largely due to increased levels of noise and pollution. And there are quality of life issues from the generally higher noise pollution levels of urban areas. The percentages can be debated, but most studies agree that some significant portion of passenger vehicles will be hybridized or electrified in coming decades and transportation in general will become quieter, added noise seems like a fairly perverse version of "keeping up with the Joneses."

What hasn't yet been proven in all of this is that there actually is a significant pedestrian danger from hybrids or electric vehicles. Many have noted that between motor whine, tire noise, high-powered electronics, coolant pumps and fans, these cars are anything but silent, even at low speed or stand still. The study most cited as justification for this legislation comes from NHTSA and stipulates on page one of its own executive summary that the sample size is too small and the available data too lacking to be considered conclusive. Further, it cites the Toyota Corolla among the hybrids evaluated – a vehicle that doesn't even exist. It also excludes the original Honda Insight from the study – because its gasoline engine runs continuously – even though it is one of the most efficient hybrids to date. And while cities like London have for years had far more EVs than we have, in a more concentrated area, no data has been sourced from these regions.

For all the emotion and politics, the core issue is not whether adding sound is right or wrong, but that we don't at all have enough objective data to legislate on the matter at all. We haven't done enough homework on the problem, we haven't evaluated other possible pedestrian solutions, and we haven't even begun to consider the unintended consequences of adding noise – but because of the nature of the group pushing for this legislation, disturbingly few of us are willing to suggest that we take a collective breath, pause for a moment and think this through.

None of this has stopped legislation from being pushed forward, likely as part of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010. This legislation does not consider varying native dB levels among hybrid and electric vehicles, some of which exceed newer gas vehicles, and applying extra noise accordingly. Rather, it calls for adding a consistent level of an approved sound to all vehicles with an electric motor, even, in theory, a Cadillac Escalade Hybrid that also happens to have a 6.0L V8 engine. More, it does not allow any type of driver-controlled disabling of the sound, however temporary, nor does it include any hybrid or EV driver groups in the stakeholders to be consulted in determining appropriate sounds. In other words, Congress is not talking with anyone with actual experience with the technology in question while potentially affecting in a big way the marketability of plug-in vehicles.

That this issue is fronted by the NFB has made it the third rail of policy conversation, conspicuously ignored by even the most normally vocal EV advocates – which is unfortunate, because it means that this complex issue is unlikely to get the attention and thought it deserves. Worse, it suggests that blind people are so fragile that they can't reasonably be expected to even have this conversation To me, this goes against the very core of an effort framed around their ability to navigate the world like everyone else.


Chelsea began working in the auto industry before she was old enough to vote; her work on General Motors' EV1 program was featured in the Sony Pictures Classics film, Who Killed the Electric Car? She led the creation of the Automotive X PRIZE, co-founded Plug In America, and currently runs the Lightning Rod Foundation, through which she conspires with various stakeholders to get plug-in cars back on the road and educate consumers about them. Chelsea is also a consulting producer on Chris Paine's next film, Revenge of the Electric Car.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      Solar power and plug-in cars is the only sustainable way to power individual autos.

      Running an EV 1000 miles per month takes only 250 kilo-Watt-hours of electric, about $25 worth; about what two old refrigerators cost and about a third of the average home usage.

      It would take only a tenth of the average home roof -- 6 square yards -- to make 250 kWh per month, enough electric energy to run a plug-in car 1000 miles per month.

      Because solar power and plug-in cars would cut oil profits, Big Oil has strangled and delayed this simple alternative to oil and coal.

      No matter how many nuke or coal plants we build, it won't replace one drop of oil unless there are plug-in cars to use the electric.

      America's largest open-pit coal mine is a witches cauldron of toxic waste and caustic destruction; but if the ground were left alone, and covered with solar panels, we'd get more electric energy from the same space (28,000 acres) than from the coal.

      Instead of coal mines, or oil rigs, the same workers could be manufacturing and installing solar panels and building and recycling electric plug-in cars and reforming their batteries.

      Buying oil from people who hate us gives them our money and leaves only air and ground pollution, asthma and smog.

      Nickel-Metal Hydride is the only proven EV (Electric Vehicle) battery; after 100K or 200K miles NiMH can be remelted down into new batteries without new mining. But we need to get started, instead of seeking the "perfect EV".

      Instead of "research", we need to start making and improving plug-in cars right now, not waiting for the perfect that never comes.

      Lowering cost and continual product improvement of EVs and solar panels is the only healing salve for our oil and coal toxicity.
      • 5 Years Ago
      There are huge quality of life issues for everyone. How many have lived near a place where trucks spend any amount of time backing up? Going beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep forEVER.

      That's just one truck. If this is on all cars, how's it going to help the blind -- or anyone! -- to be assaulted from everywhere by a din of rustling, beeping, phasering, fake-tire-noise, and all the rest? The whole idea is idiotic. The only reason it has any traction is because, as Chelsea said, "That this issue is fronted by the NFB has made it the third rail of policy conversation."

      I was going to plunk down my savings on a Leaf the minute it came out. As soon as I heard about them adding noise, I lost interest completely.

      Chelsea's also right that the interest in EVs isn't going to be anywhere near as big if they're turned into booping and beeping noise machines.
        • 8 Months Ago
        The irony is that over 20 years ago it was determined that backing truck could simply put out a quiet white noise and they would work just as well to warn nearby pedestrians. For decades we have had to hear the bleeping of construction sites a mile away for no reason but legislators don't want to take the political risk of being blamed when the inevitable accident happens.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Right on Chelsea. We really need to organize and fight this legislation. We can't just scream and complain about it, there is too much at stake. These VSP's are going to make EV's look like toy cars and turn would be customers away from them and I think that's really the intent of this. I hate to sound so cynical but EV's(and you in particular) have been fighting this uphill battle for so long now and we are so close to finally bringing these cars to market on a large scale.
      What I want to see done is a comprehensive test where noise levels of all new cars are tested. Have the cars drive at 20, 30 & 40mph and with a decibel meter recording at 50 & 100 feet away. Test the cars under acceleration and coasting. I bet most new cars, coasting at 20 or 30 mph are as silent as any EV at 50 feet. This is the type of situation a pedestrian would typically encounter as they cross the street.
      If you know of any organized response to this or anyone that wants to conduct tests to gather data on the noise of approaching cars please contact me, you have my contact info. I'd like to contribute
      • 5 Years Ago
      Where was/is the push by NFB to get noise makers put on electric golf carts and other NEVs?

      You know, those "silent killers" that have been sneaking around highly pedestrian zones (golf courses, vacation resorts, retirement communities, etc) for decades now. I guess it's because they have superior braking and handling {sarcasm} and are never driven by children, drunk vacationers, or others that have since retired from driving the main roads {more sarcasm}.

      And before you say they don't go fast enough, remember that tire noise quickly becomes one of the largest announcing factors on most modern cars as speed increases.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I own two EV's and a PHEV. At anything over parking lot speeds, there is enough tire and other noises that anybody can hear them coming--and at those speeds, I'm on a street and pedestrians should be in a crosswalk, where I will stop whether they can hear me or not.

      In a parking lot, I'm going slow enough that I can easily stop if I see a pedestrian that doesn't hear me. Sure, this happens in my EV--but it also happened all the time in my old biodiesel car, which definitely wasn't quiet.

      I don't think quietness is what causes a vehicle to hit a pedestrian, blind or not.
      • 5 Years Ago
      A friend's Lexus SC430 is so quiet I'm guessing it'd pass for an electric car sound-wise. And how about ***flashing headlights*** to warn the hearing impaired? The radio beacon idea seems tolerable. Better yet, EVs probably natively broadcast an EM signature: develop a warning receiver for the visually impaired.
      • 5 Years Ago
      What a joke...this country is being sliced up into tiny pieces by oil and pharmaceutical companies via hundreds of millions of lobbying and bribery and we're worried about what the blind are demanding???

      • 5 Years Ago
      i can easily spot hybrids and EVs before they come into sight by the sound signature. For better or worse, there always seems to be a high pitch whine coming from the motor controller.
      • 5 Years Ago
      NFB is full of it.

      The Prius has been doing it's quiet mode for years. There have been ZERO increase in pedestrian collisions.

      This is alarmist nonsense based on fear mongering.

      We should not add unnecessary annoyance without data backing up their need.

      No Data, No regulations.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Great article as always, Chelsea. =)

      Just a couple quick points:

      1.) Why does this debate/legislation focus only on cars with an electric motor? Modern ICE cars, particularly luxury cars are very quiet and I hardly hear them in parking lots. Logic would dictate that if this were a real problem, the NFB should be pressing for noise makers on all cars? (Not that I think any of this is logical.)

      2.) A user initiated gentle secondary horn (as on the EV1) is a feature all cars should have and something for which I'd pay extra. Would be perfect for those parking lot situations where I'm often stuck behind some pedestrians (in my definitely not quiet ICE car) that aren't completely aware of their surroundings. The standard car horn is a bit too obnoxious. I might even like a back up sound in such situations, just as long as it's something I can choose to turn on and off!
        • 5 Years Ago
        Couldn't agree more Doug- and the legislation calls also for a "study" on gas cars, to be completed...4 years after the passing of the legislation. And the pedestrian alert would be great on all cars- not only is the horn often overkill, it comes off as rude in many situations.
        • 5 Years Ago
        As the parent of two small children (ages 6 and 4), I think the point about low speeds in parking lots (ICE or electric) is one that certainly merits discussion. Particularly in reverse.

        I can't always keep my kids from "running ahead" in the parking lot (though a stern lecture about such behavior is usually enough), and with all the full size SUV's and minivans, sometimes it's impossible to SEE a car backing out of a space, my only option is to "hear" the engine throttle up slightly.

        I don't want to live in a nanny state anymore than the next guy, but becoming a parent does make you more sensitive to issues which you might not have otherwise thought about. I'm going soft! Hopefully the NFB will be thoughtful in approaching this issue.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Did everyone notice how the level of discourse suddenly jumped up in this article compared to usual ABG articles ? Nice article indeed.

      We have been debating this in our Leaf forum.

      discussion : http://www.mynissanleaf.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=557

      Only 11% of the people are ok with Leaf's VSP.

      poll : http://www.mynissanleaf.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=570

      Petition ! : http://www.mynissanleaf.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=580&p=6783

      So, obviously this is a very important topic. Apparently Nissan & others have been discussing this with NFB for a while but they never bothered to ask us - people who will shell out $25K or more.

      We should demand that decisions be data-driven rather than lobby driven. NFB should be asked to furnish peer reviewed research before any action is taken.
        • 5 Years Ago
        One of the poll questions is "I prefer driver controlled VSP "
        And that received the most hits. 55%

        Yet, this question:
        "I have no problem with Leaf's VSP" only gets 11%

        Makes me think that most people don't know that the Leaf's VSP IS "driver controlled". You can turn it off.

        When the story first broke, the media glossed over and made sure readers did not focus on (or understand) the fact that it had an off switch.


        Once again, the wording of the poll skews the results.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The Leaf's VSP is more "driver-modifiable" than driver-controlled/engaged. Yes, you can turn it off, and must do that every time you start the car, but that's different than being able to engage sound in the moment that you need it as in the GM approach.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I loved the backup horn on the EV-1. Loved it. A little pull towards you on the turn signal if I remember correctly and "blurbulbelrube" (sorry, no link to an MP3 available). not real loud, just enough to make the pedestrians in front of you look around in confusion wondering where that sound came from. No one ever expects the car.
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