[Perform-talk] Quiet Car Debate Covered in New York Times

Donna Hill penatwork at epix.net
Mon Jul 13 13:57:27 UTC 2009


July 13, 2009


The Silence of Hybrids Causes Some Alarm


NEW YORK — A popular, homespun (and perhaps slightly off-color) 
“advertisement” for the Toyota Prius, circulated on YouTube, features a 
hostage — bound,
gagged, and on his knees — and a cartoonish terrorist’s barking 
provocations at the camera.

“I challenge you to save this man,” the captor hollers as his prisoner 
squirms behind him. “Your advanced technologies are no match for our 

As a Prius rolls silently into the background, scoops up the hostage and 
then glides off camera, the terrorist adds, “I can even hear a man think.”

Whatever else the video might represent, it is a cheeky nod to a 
particular characteristic of the Prius, and of hybrid and electric 
vehicles generally:
They do not make a lot of noise.

For some — particularly those unnerved by the persistent din of modern, 
motorized civilization — that is a welcome virtue. Several studies, 
after all, suggest
a strong link between ill health and persistent noise. Earlier this 
year, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden reported an “association” 
between long-term
exposure to road traffic noise and the risk of myocardial infarction, or 
heart attack — though the authors of the study emphasized that more 
research was

At the same time, the relative quiet of electric vehicles has long been 
considered a potential hazard — particularly to blind pedestrians, but 
also to bicyclists,
children and others who, presumably, are better served by the rumbling 
declarations of the internal combustion engine.

So it was not entirely surprising when an official with the Japanese 
Transport Ministry confirmed earlier this month that the department had 
assembled a
panel to consider the idea of adding “a sound-making function” to 
hybrid-electric vehicles.

“Blind people depend on sounds when they walk,” the official told Agence 
France-Presse. “But there are no engine sounds from hybrid vehicles when 
at low speed.”

Japan is not alone in its concerns.

As the market for hybrid vehicles expands (analysts at R.L. Polk & Co., 
an auto industry market research company, expect hybrid penetration in 
Europe and
North America to reach 5 percent of the overall car market in the next 
three years), so too has a general unease over the potential for 
injurious car-pedestrian

Legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress would require the National 
Highway Traffic Safety Administration to study the issue, and establish 
a minimum
decibel level for all cars.

"I was in my hometown of Ocala at the grocery store with my wife," said 
Congressman Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican and a co-sponsor, along 
with Edolphus
Towns, Democrat of New York, of one of the bills. "As I was crossing the 
parking lot I noticed that a car came very close to me and I did not 
hear it,"
he said. "I saw firsthand that this could be a potential safety issue."

The European Commission is reportedly examining the issue as well — as 
are a number of companies and entrepreneurs who anticipate a lucrative 
market in
customized, perhaps even downloadable sounds that manufacturers and 
drivers of hybrid and electric vehicles can use to brand their cars.

Needless to say, some consumers wince at the whole idea.

"I will never buy a car with a 'noisemaker,'" wrote Albé Bredekamp, an 
electrical engineer and Prius owner in South Africa, at the 
Priuschat.com forums
earlier this month. "I'll demand that it be disabled or removed. If not, 
I'll do it myself."

Bill Reinke, a Green Inc. reader, wrote in our forum last week: “I heard 
this same dubious complaint when I bought my Prius. Eight years and 99K 
miles later,”
or 160,000 kilometers, “I have yet to kill or even maim any pedestrians, 
vision-impaired or otherwise.

“What evidence is there, that there is a safety issue with quiet vehicles?”

Very little, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Ray 
Tyson, a spokesman for the department’s highway traffic safety division, 
said his agency,
with the prodding of the National Federation of the Blind and other 
groups, has been analyzing pedestrian fatality data for some time, to 
uncover any increased
hazard posed by “quiet cars.”

“We’ve not seen evidence that there is a safety issue,” Mr. Tyson said — 
though he added that this does not mean it could not one day become a 

The agency is conducting field tests that measure the comparative 
audibility of hybrids and conventional cars.

Meanwhile, Lawrence Rosenblum, a researcher who specializes in auditory 
perception at the University of California, Riverside, said there was 
some cause
for concern. In a variety of laboratory and field tests of his own, Mr. 
Rosenblum has determined that blindfolded subjects are able to make 
faster — and more accurate — decisions about the direction from which a 
conventional car is approaching than about Prius models.

He also suggests it is not just an issue for the blind.

“We use sound as an early warning system,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “It grabs 
our attention as it needs to, and it’s an issue for everybody, not just 
those who
are visually impaired.”

But, he added, the problem is fairly narrow, in that the cars are 
quietest at very low speeds. Above 15 miles per hour, he said, friction 
noise from the
wheels on the road, even in a vehicle running in full electric mode, 
makes enough sound to make its presence known.

Adding some sort of artificial noise at speeds below 15 miles per hour 
will certainly help, Mr. Rosenblum said, though it need not rattle the 

“The good news is, because of the way our brains work, as long as it can 
detect a sound, it doesn’t need to be a loud sound,” he said.

But what sound? Some manufacturers, including Fisker Automotive, which 
plans to sell an electric sports car, provide engine tones via internal 
and external
speakers — not least to satisfy drivers who relish the muscular vroom of 
a conventional engine.

Shai Agassi, the founder of Better Place, which aims to provide an 
infrastructure for battery swaps and recharging electric vehicles, told 
a German car
magazine last August that he was also betting on personalized sounds for 
electric cars, and that his company had copyrighted the term “Drivetones.”

“Your car can sound like a Harley or a speedboat — no problem,” Mr. 
Agassi was quoted as saying.

EVAcoustics, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup funded in part by the 
National Federation for the Blind, is busy developing an external sound 
system that
would work with the internal computer on a Prius, projecting sound in 
"meaningful ways" from speakers mounted near the wheels.

And Musikvergnuegen, an audio branding company in Hollywood, Calif. 
perhaps best known for creating Intel's sound logo, is apparently sizing 
up the potential
market for creating customized sounds for automakers. Said Taka 
Yasuzawa, an associate producer with the company: "The main impetus for 
this is Congress
discussing passing a bill that would set some standards for hybrid cars. 
The ball is in their court."

Just how likely it is that such a bill would pass is difficult to say, 
but it seems certain that global entrepreneurs will pursue a cacophony 
of sounds,
raising the specter of an unholy racket on roads until — or unless — a 
standard is established that harmonizes the conflicting sides of the 
quiet car debate.

In an e-mail message last week, Chris Danielsen, the spokesman for the 
National Federation of the Blind, expressed optimism.

“We believe that a solution can be found,” he said, “that balances the 
needs of pedestrians — including not only the blind but also runners, 
small children,
etc., with the desire for less noise.”

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