[Nfbc-info] Washington Post article on silent cars

Freeh, Jessica 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.


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.

But how?

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 
the group.

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 another.

Said Pare: 'We are certain that there is a safe level of sound that 
isn't burdensome to society.'




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