Last fall, I posted about the fact that the National Federation of the Blind wants Congress to require added noise to all hybrids and plug-in vehicles. I frankly didn’t think we’d still be talking about it months later, but the issue has only gathered momentum and is now pending inclusion in this year’s Motor Vehicle Safety Act.
Writing another piece on the subject for Autoblog Green only confirmed an abundance of public frustration around it. The main issue is not whether adding sound is good or bad, but that there’s insufficient data on which to mandate it- and even less analysis of the various technological solutions beyond simply making cars louder all the time. Exacerbating the problem is that so few people (including the affected car companies and EV consumer groups) want to talk about it, lest they be painted as insensitive. Given that consumers prefer their cars not make extra noise, there’s a concerning marketability issue, but no organized voice to address it- pretty much a mission with my name on it in neon lights.
I’ve since been joined by a few other folks, namely a fellow EV cohort with a talent for culling and analyzing what little data there is, and a couple of respected journalists who have been watching this all unfold and writing about it here, here, and here. But I’ve mostly encountered brick walls with automakers and various other stakeholders, the consensus being that with a disabled group fronting the initiative, legislators won’t reconsider and anyone asking them to will be seen as politically incorrect. In response to my prodding, one longtime colleague said in exasperation, “the deal with you is that you approach everything with the same intensity, whether you can win or not.”
The observation caught me off guard, but I have to concede he’s right- and not just about my ability to be exasperating. Once I decide to do something, the intensity is about the same, regardless of the expected end result. But that outcome is actually a counterintuitive factor in the decision. Anyone can sign up for something that’s a known win- that venture merely needs warm bodies, and usually isn’t lacking for them. The “unwinnable” is quite often that merely because there are fewer people in its sandbox- what seems impossible often isn’t, if only someone (or enough people) would take it on. If a million people believe in a dumb idea, it’s still a dumb idea- but an idea isn’t inherently bad just because it’s lonely.
Taking those chances has become the core challenge for my colleagues on more and more issues: if it isn’t clearly winnable, it’s harder to muster the effort to take it up. Many who used to brazenly stand on what they deemed right even in the face of reason have diluted their positions to include only what’s popular. The irony of such skittishness is that this generation of the EV movement- and industry- was born out of the unwinnable and politically disfavored. When we started trying to save different EVs some years back, we didn’t at all think we’d succeed. Indeed, we were fairly certain that we’d lose the cars completely- but persisted anyway and proved ourselves wrong in all cases but one. Getting new plug-ins built was for years the very definition of a losing proposition. There are many who think it still is, even with the support of a President and focus of a nation. The first automakers to jump back in did so at a time when other alternative fuels were getting much more political and economic favor. We did it anyway, in part on principle and in some cases with an altered definition of “win”- sometimes merely getting the story told was a feat in itself. In the case of the noise issue, getting a proper study would be a success at this point, and I don’t think that’s too much (or too insensitive) to ask. It’s nothing compared to the effort of rebuilding an industry- and I sometimes wonder if the human cost of having done so isn’t revealed through a newer, more stubborn grip on an easier path. Has the temerity employed to revive this technology given way to timidity now that we have?
Tilting at windmills as a conscious choice doesn’t negate the risk involved- a fall from that height leaves a mark no matter what. And while that’s sometimes part of the excitement, there’s a difference between not running from the challenge and seeking one out for the sake of it. But in the competition for my professional time and energy, the question I consider more often than “is this winnable?” is, “will I still feel good about having worked on it (or wish I had) if we lose?” It’s a tougher question, but in the rare cases where the answer is “yes”, I know it’s exactly what I should be doing- and approach it with the same intensity as a sure thing.
But I’m totally open to an occasional crowd in my sandbox.