Blind leading the blind?



Fisker Karma's artificial sound-emitting bumper speakers
Fisker Karma's artificial sound-emitting bumper speakers

For the most part, the electric vehicle world is palpably buzzing with excitement of cars to come- and after some seriously dark years, there is much to look forward to. The collective conversation has finally shifted from “if” to “how”, but even on easier “how” points, we can’t seem to get out of our own way- which really doesn’t bode well for the hard stuff.

Case in point is a newly-emerging issue over the silence of hybrids and electric cars. In the EV generation of the 1990’s, their comparative lack of noise was a selling point. Now, according to some, it’s a threat to life itself. Advocacy organizations and hyper news reports are forming a chorus with a fairly shrill tune: “Electric cars are going to kill blind people!” Policymakers are now considering a minimum noise requirement for vehicles; worse, automakers are doing it voluntarily. In due time, plug-ins stand to be a favorite domain of the SEMA crowd, so I’m not referring to the folks who want to trick out their EV as Kitt to their David Hasselhoff. It’s in the proposed custom to add constant noise to all hybrids and plug-in vehicles that we’ve collectively lost the plot.

Pedestrian safety is obviously not an unfair consideration, though the amount of spontaneous momentum it’s received lately raises eyebrows. Having experienced a generation of petroleum industry funded “grassroots” organizations who would ploy senior citizens with a boxed lunch and a bus ride in exchange for voicing scripted “objections” to EVs at regulatory hearings in the 1990’s, even I, not a conspiracy theorist, wonder if the blind community has become the new mechanism for similar interests. Realistically, they would likely be the least affected group, compared to the number of sighted pedestrians who run around with iPods connected to noise-blocking earphones or on cell phones (often all but screaming into them to be heard over traffic noise, adding to the communal din), or who simply aren’t paying as much attention as we should. And, there is experience to draw upon…in addition to the EVs deployed to date, we have a decade of experience with hybrids, also electrically driven at low speeds. Are Prii littering crosswalks and parking lots with fallen bi-peds and I’m just out of touch?

Either way, we’ve taken a question that was asked and answered years ago and are turning it into an industry imperative. Except when at a dead stop- when pedestrians of all sorts are reasonably safe, plug-in vehicles are not silent. Many are quiet (though, with today’s insulation and sound-deadening measures, so are many gas cars) but they still have some amount of motor whine, electronic humming, fans, coolant pumps, tire noise, etc. Plug-in hybrids may also have gasoline engines running. Yet even with these “features”, GM engineers thought of and addressed the issue years ago: every EV1 came equipped with a wonkily-named “pedestrian alert alarm”. At low speeds, drivers could engage an electronic chirp/headlight flash to warn pedestrians, as needed, that the car was approaching- loud enough to get attention, but not nearly as startling as the regular horn. Drivers loved it- the car made extra noise only in the moments it mattered. Those on foot were protected- the proverbial “win-win”. So why are we trying to make what was so simply solved a dozen years ago so complicated today?

Electric vehicles were once pervertedly argued to be a social justice issue based on the idea that only wealthier folks were able to afford the early ones, so their communities would have the air-quality benefits. In response, S. David Freeman has incredulously noted that “air doesn’t know a boundary between Brentwood and South LA”. However, plug-ins could in fact be a tool in the social justice box for their lower noise profile in addition to lack of tailpipe. The goal shouldn’t be to make them louder but to aim at sucking decibels from all vehicles. Yes, I know that performance vehicle enthusiasts would have me strung up (I do grok that many think thrust is as much an aural experience as a visceral one), but who would argue that mom’s minivan is deficient without a throaty internal combustion growl? Cleaner, quieter transport means higher property values in often economically depressed neighborhoods adjacent to freeways and high-traffic roadways, to say nothing of the health of the families living there and public dollars saved from not building sound walls and other noise abatement measures. Electric drive technology has attendant benefits beyond the obvious environmental and energy concerns that we haven’t begun to analyze- but should, before we go adulterating it.

But (and it’s a big one), none of this takes away from the most important- and most overlooked point:


More simply said, if you can’t avoid hitting people you shouldn’t be driving a vehicle of any kind. In all of the angst over this issue, it bears repeating. Now can we please- pretty please, get back to the actual (and not insignificant) work of putting cars on the road?

16 thoughts on “Blind leading the blind?

  1. Chelsea – great post as always. Thoughtful, insightful article that everyone should read. Will common sense ever prevail? Should I be holding my breath?

    1. Re this nagging and relentless “concern”: One does, indeed, wonder who might be orchestrating and capitalizing on blind pedestrians’ fears as well as those who are just blindly resistant.

      Beautifully and cleverly expressed, Chelsea.

      I am presently in downtown Manhattan. The deafening roar of hundreds of ICEs (even from our 10th floor hotel room) promises to make catching even a few Z’s even more challenging than usual. Maybe tonight I’ll dream of New York at the turn of the 20th Century when electric taxies, personal vehicles and delivery trucks far outnumbered gasoline vehicles.



  2. People like to find something wrong with something obviously great and simple.
    Maybe it’s the muffler shop people?

    But maybe it’s a good idea! A whole new industry of after-market EV noise makers!
    I want mine to sound like a baby crying on an airplane.
    Or the Chevy Suburban with the 200 decibel hip hop beats rattling my mirrors.

    Funny, my Dad was blind the last 3 years of his life and he never said anything about this except how wonderful the EV1 was.

    How many people have been hurt by these sneaky kind of cars anyway?

  3. I Agree 100%. Even my sister who doesn’t give a hoot about EVs is now asking me about range issues and that “lack of noise” issue. It’s funny how people are getting more aware of EVs.

    Like many things, once we’re a couple of years into EV mass production, we will finally see what are real issues – or not.

    This reminds me of when microwave ovens were first introduced. People had all kinds of reservations until the microwave oven companies started sponsoring cooking shows featuring old ladies preparing traditional meals with the new technology. Who would argue with aunt Lucie about her cooking?

    Maybe we need a celebrity everyday person like Oprah or Martha Stewart to show that EVs can be safely used by “normal” people…

    Keep up the great work.

  4. Dear Chelsea,
    Delighted to find your blog today. Great post. I would expect nothing less from you. You are an inspiration and I appreciate your insight and expertise on the subject of EV’s. I look forward to future posts.
    Happy trails,
    Katie Cavanaugh, OR

  5. I’m one of the Mini-E trial lease participants (#250) in New Jersey and I have had a few people recently ask me if the lack of noise has posed any problems yet. Where is this crap coming from? Many of today’s ICE vehicles are so quiet that you really don’t hear the motor at all except under heavy acceleration. A new car coasting on a city street at 25 to 30 mph (the typical situation where you may encounter a blind person crossing the street) is very quiet. You barely hear anything other than the tires against the pavement like you hear from an electric car. Mandatory minimum noise levels? This is not a safety consideration, it’s a scare tactic.

  6. If you are interested in learning more about the safety issues and why this topic is a concern of the blind community and why it ‘may’ be a problem for other pedestrians, see: and also the comments in the Federal Register at:

    I encourage you to submit comments to the Federal Register if you want to play a role in the debate about possible regulations.

  7. Hello, Im trying to find a way to get in contact with you about a last minute opportunity to create an EV oriented video at LA autoshow. If you could email me that’d be great.

  8. Chelsea you should blog more! I’m sort of a fan of you, and I love EVs; it would be nice to see this blog updated more. You make such great points and I always enjoy hearing your opinion.

  9. I’d like to see some statistics – how many pedestriam ears are routinely plugged w/ earbuds, how may pedestrians are injured annually etc.

    A solution searching for a problem. Responsibility may be an unknown word to some young drivers, but it’s a two way street. Drivers and pedestrians.

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