[Nfbc-info] Washington Post article on silent cars
JFreeh at nfb.org
Wed Sep 23 23:41:53 CDT 2009
The following article on the danger posed by silent cars appeared
today on the front page of the Washington Post.
The Deadly Silence of the Electric Car
Automakers Propose Vroom-Vroom Substitutes to Alert Pedestrians
Byline: Peter Whoriskey
Publication Date: 09/23/2009
<http://c.moreover.com/click/here.pl?z2220551574&z=950243970>Link to Article
After years of trying to make cars sound as if they were riding on
air, engineers are considering how they might bring back some noise.
They're trying to make some of them -- those silent hybrids -- more audible.
A team of engineers developing the Leaf, the forthcoming electric car
from Nissan and a front-runner in the race for a mass-market electric
car, have recently been presenting their ideas for artificial noises
to government officials and focus groups.
Maybe Chime Number 22?
Melody Number 39?
Perhaps a futuristic whirring like the aircraft in 'Blade Runner'? As
hybrids proliferate and major automakers such as Nissan and General
Motors prepare to launch battery electric vehicles next year, some
automakers are seeking to address concerns in the United States and
Japan that the nearly noiseless vehicles may be so quiet that they
pose a threat to pedestrians.
At a meeting earlier this month and another over the summer, Nissan
presented the chime, the melody and a futuristic whir to the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has recently gathered
evidence that the vehicles may pose a safety risk.
Regulatory committees in the United States and Japan are also
studying complaints about the cars, and Congress is weighing a
measure requiring vehicles to issue 'non-visual' warnings to
pedestrians. 'We are studying potential artificial noises that can be
added to the vehicle,' said Scott Becker, a Nissan senior vice president.
But the nascent industry is divided over whether safety sounds should
be added to the quiet cars and, if so, what those noises should be.
'Frankly, we've been working for 30 years to make cars quiet -- never
thinking they could become too quiet,' said Robert Strassburger, vice
president for vehicle safety at the Alliance of Automobile
Manufacturers, an industry group that has been working to address the
concerns. But now 'those vehicles may be difficult to detect.' Hybrid
vehicles typically operate on hushed battery-powered electric motors
when idling and traveling at low speeds. At higher speeds, the
noisier internal-combustion engine kicks in. Toyota, which makes the
popular hybrid Prius, a small car that runs very quietly at low
speeds, does not add artificial sounds.
Cars like Tesla's Roadster, Nissan's Leaf and General Motors' Volt,
which will depend on battery electric power, may be even quieter.
Officials at Tesla say they have no intention of implementing 'fake
noises.' The company already makes the $109,000 electric Roadster, a
luxury product popular with eco-conscious celebrity customers. 'We
have delivered more than 700 cars, and our customers overwhelmingly
say the relative quiet of the powertrain is one of the most appealing
aspects of the car,' said Tesla spokeswoman Rachel Konrad. 'Thanks to
widespread electric vehicle adoption, we will all enjoy far less
noise pollution in the future.' Evidence that the hybrid sales spurt
poses a safety threat has been scant, in part because the phenomenon
is new and the hybrid cars represent only a small fraction of the
more than 230 million vehicles on the road, transportation officials said.
But an as-yet-unreleased NHTSA study of accidents in 12 states
compares accident rates for some hybrid vehicles and their internal
combustion engine counterparts.
Covering more than 8,000 hybrid electric vehicles and nearly 600,000
gasoline-fueled cars, the analysis suggests that during certain
low-speed maneuvers such as turning and backing up, hybrid vehicles
are 50 percent more likely to be involved in an accident with a
pedestrian, said Ronald Medford, acting deputy administrator of
NHTSA. 'We certainly know that blind pedestrians rely heavily on the
sound of vehicles as a means of determining when it is safe to cross
the road,' Medford said. 'But all of us are susceptible.' The
potential problem arises at speeds less than 15 mph, when the
electric and hybrid vehicles are notably quiet, almost silent. At
higher speeds, the rush of air and the slap of tires makes the
electrics almost as noisy as their gasoline-powered counterparts.
Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill that would require
the Department of Transportation to establish a safety standard under
which cars would have to be equipped to issue 'non-visual alerts' so
that pedestrians can determine the vehicle's location, motion and speed.
It has garnered 139 sponsors, among them Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who
says he has been startled by a quiet car. 'I was down in Florida in
the parking lot of a shopping center, and I was wheeling my groceries
with my wife, and I didn't hear a car come up behind me,' Stearns
told reporters. 'If all the cars are silent in the future, it does
pose a problem.' But if electric cars are to be equipped with sound,
there is little agreement over what the sound should be, how loud it
ought to be and whether manufacturers should be allowed to create
their own distinctive audio tracks.
Some automakers are already experimenting with or planning to develop noises.
The Fisker Karma, a luxury electric vehicle, will have an integrated
audio system that will both alert pedestrians and give the car a
'distinctive audio signature' that will be 'reflective of the car's
advanced technology,' a spokesman said. Officials with the National
Federation of the Blind, which has pressed the safety issue with
automakers and regulators, have advocated that electric cars make
sounds similar to those of gas-powered cars. 'Society is conditioned
to that sound,' said John Pare, director of strategic initiatives for
There is some concern that if a variety of noises are permitted, then
electric cars could merely add another layer to the urban cacophony,
potentially conflicting with state and local laws governing decibel
levels. 'If we all do it differently, we will confuse the heck out of
the consumer,'' said Nancy Gioia, director of hybrid and sustainable
technology at Ford.
Nissan declined to release the audio tracks being considered but said
it would make its final decision in consultation with regulators.
It is also seeking approval from drivers, some of whom have been
fussy about the various sounds tested. 'They are too flat and
irritating in hearing for more than even five minutes,' one
respondent in a Nissan test said. 'Monotonous sound makes me sleepy,'
Said Pare: 'We are certain that there is a safe level of sound that
isn't burdensome to society.'
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