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.
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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.