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:
THE PROPULSION SYSTEM IN A VEHICLE DOES NOT ABSOLVE THE DRIVER OF THE RESPONSIBILITY NOT TO HIT SOMEONE.
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?