Quietly making noise…

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.

16 thoughts on “Quietly making noise…

  1. “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.”

    That is a spectacular bit of writing right there.

  2. “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 LOL’d.
    You know my position on this issue. The “loud pipes save lives” mantra is better placed as an ironic subtext on many motorcyclists’ tombstones, than as a motto of safe riding. These days, with drivers enjoying texting and talking on cell phones in their more and more soundproofed cars, dependence on sound to alert someone else of your presence is folly.
    Accidents happen. The avoidable ones often depend on something that is becoming more rare everyday: paying attention. That, and a hefty dose of personal responsibility would go a long way to making this world a safer and better place in so many ways.
    (please post this on your Facebook page!)

  3. I too have been covering this issue (maybe not as much as I could) but my last article on making quiet cars noisy looked at some data. “Obviously it’s not a lack of noise that makes big vehicles dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists” was one of my conclusions. Pedestrians and bicyclists are dying all the time after being struck by noisy vehicles. Ergo it’s not noise but as Harry says, a lack of awareness.

    As a new motorcycle rider the biggest learning I’ve had is that paying attention is oh so very important to rider safety. The California-approved motorcycle safety training course has an acronym us motorcycle riders are supposed to remember – which boils down to pay attention constantly, watch for what the other traffic is doing, plan for any needed maneuvers, etc. I’ve had more close calls on my gas motorcycle than on my electric motorcycle. I’m convinced it’s not the noise but whether I’m being a safe and conscientious vehicle operator, and it seems to me my car driving, not just motorcycle riding, has been improved as well.

  4. I am solidly against noise pollution (unnecessary noise).

    Many who grow up in a noisy city report being unable to sleep well in the quiet of the countryside, but they might be unfamiliar with the sublte rustle of leaves in a slight breeze or the wonderous hum of a hummingbird. In Paris the car-related noise was so bad that they had to pass a law forbiding the use of horns in the city.

    Here, there is no evidence that quieter cars (or EVs, which are demonstrably not silent) are more fatal to properly-cautious blind people. Tire noise is always there at speeds above several miles per hour. Bicycles might be the bigger danger, but they rarely cause fatalities.

    Until suitable, real evidence can be presented to the contrary, the “almost-quiet” EV should be considered a blessing.

  5. If “safety advocates” were in actual pursuit of safety, they would be looking at the noise generated inside the car, rather than the noise generated by the car. In the iPod age, one can drive down almost any road and find drivers wearing earbud headsets. With music on, and outside sound blocked, these drivers are clueless to outside audible clues to their surroundings. These drivers are clearly the greater danger to society than a silent vehicle ever could be.

  6. Thank you, Chelsea !

    From David Herron’s article, quote “On the one hand hybrid and electric cars offer a way out of the crushing noise pollution rampant in American cities. Noise pollution primarily comes from vehicles and it can cause annoyance and aggression, hypertension, high stress levels, tinnitus, hearing loss, sleep disturbances, and other harmful effects. Plus it’s downright unpleasant.”

    Right on ! My question is, who is trying to save all the city dwellers suffering from “aggression, hypertension, high stress levels, tinnitus, hearing loss, sleep disturbances, and other harmful effects.” ? No disrespect to the vision impaired, but without that solid “danger-to-the-blind” data, which seems to be vaporware, it seems to me there are more important issues at stake, burdening a larger population with hidden costs, including medical, physical, and psychological.

    A move toward quieter cars, not “enhanced” with “beep-beep-beep”, is a step in the right direction.

  7. I would add that the major player missing from this debate on noise are the car companies themselves. I think it’s arguable that hybrids and EV with “noisemakers” are going to be less appealing to the buying public. At least, it’s a safe assumption no one actually *wants* a louder hybrid/EV. So in the face of a new law that might make their product less salable, where are the car companies? This is not a tangential issue, it’s a core issue that will affect the sales of these companies.

    So why are these companies so quiet? Perhaps they lack the wherewithall to face down a potentially thorny issue. Perhaps. Perhaps they would prefer to sell non-hybrid/EV’s and this law just helps them push the public in that direction?

    In the end, I think, the only people are who will do anything to stop this are current hybrid/EV owners and those who want one in the future. They understand what’s at stake. The question is, will all those people take action and if they do, is it enough to counter the rather odd intensity that the NFB has put into this issue.

  8. Chelsea,
    If only we can get any of the major auto manufacturers to ask the same question; Is this necessary? It seems that they are content to just wait and see what happens and if they need to install the pedestrian alerts, then they’ll do it. They don’t seen to care one way or the other. I wonder if they just don’t want to seem insensitive to the needs of the blind or if they genuinely don’t care enough about it to ask questions.
    I feel this issue slipping away without any real traction to oppose it(I know you’re trying but is anyone really listening?)
    I’ve written emails to senators and even to some auto makers to at the very least ask for a study to gather legitimate data before we rush to make laws on this but it just seems like there is no interest to oppose. I feel like everyone is saying “Listen, you’re finally getting your electric cars so stop your complaining”

  9. I think there are a few issues with the automakers. The top level issue is this skittishness about appearing insensitive that led me to write the bulk of this post. There’s also a squeaky wheel issue- the NFB is a lot louder than we’ve been (or at least, more organized), and without their consumers complaining in force, it’s hard for automakers to see the marketability issue. I can’t speak for any organized hybrid groups, but so far, the consumer-oriented PH/EV orgs have been as timid as the automakers, and for the same reasons.

    There’s also a complacency issue at hand, and one that will grow worse. It’s a relatively safe assumption that the first year’s worth- and likely more- of production by the major OEMs is spoken for. So to the extent they realize consumers don’t want the extra noise, they know that it’s not going to keep them from buying the cars. The early adopters are absolutely taken for granted, which is why we see GM not terribly concerned with the fact that they won’t likely get the state financial incentives or HOV lane access, or that many dealers are marking prices up so much- and why Nissan’s infrastructure process has been so frustrating for the existing EV drivers. The piece they have yet to understand is that those early folks are also the most vocal in either direction, and their experience in both purchase and ownership will absolutely factor in to the overall success of the programs. The insensitivity toward early buyers will have much bigger ramifications than any perceived insensitivity to a special interest group (not that there needs to be any) but that’s a whole ‘nother post! ;o)

  10. Great article Chels. You may wish to have this republished in the Huffington Post and see what reaction you get.

    Research? We don’t need no f***** research! Besides, how would you “prove” your point about quiet cars being the source of greater injuries? It’s a threshold thing isn’t it? If you’re on a busy street, the amount of noise would have to be louder than if you were on a residential street. Mark Larson does a very commendable job in reporting on what data is available and how foolish this knee jerk reaction looks.

    1. Thanks, Tedley! I’d love it if Huffpost would reprint it, but I can’t imagine catching their attention…

      Yes, there are all sorts of reasons why the proposed approach not only may not be justified, but wouldn’t be helpful if implemented- and Mark did a fantastic job of digging for data and sorting through it. Especially since the NHTSA study on which all of this is premised says on page 1 of its own summary that it shouldn’t be considered conclusive. Challenge is getting any of the decision-makers to take a breath.

  11. My view is that GM has the correct answer, one that should be included in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act for all EVs, PHEVs, EREVs, etc. GM’s Volt uses a driver-operated visual/aural signal to ped’s, cyclists, etc. It’s a low-level (but highly audible and instantly recognizable) pulsating version of the Volt’s horn, concurrent with its headlight bright beams, both actuated when (& only when) the driver lifts his left turn signal level lever –same way we’ve flashed the high-beams for years. It works great, it’s unobtrusive and it only sounds/flashes when needed.

  12. This topic makes my head hurt and me laugh out load every time. It’s a visual for me. Guess I like dark humor too much. GM has the right answer all ready. If the good leaders NEED to make a mandate then ALL CARS must have a pedestrian horn. Period.

    But I know what you mean Chelsea.

    We can’t just leave law-making up to “Blind Faith”.


  13. There are plenty of cars that are quiet. They are usually very high end rides.
    If we could convince the influential buyers and the makers of those brands that their precious is in jeopardy then we might have an ally in this fight.

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