[Perform-talk] Quiet Car Debate Covered in New York Times
penatwork at epix.net
Mon Jul 13 13:57:27 UTC 2009
July 13, 2009
GREEN INC. COLUMN
The Silence of Hybrids Causes Some Alarm
TOM ZELLER Jr.
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
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”
exposure to road traffic noise and the risk of myocardial infarction, or
heart attack — though the authors of the study emphasized that more
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
panel to consider the idea of adding “a sound-making function” to
“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
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
Legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress would require the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration to study the issue, and establish
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
etc., with the desire for less noise.”
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