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Our use of the term, Electric Vehicles (EVs) describes hybrid vehicles (such as the Toyota Prius), all-electric or plug-in vehicles (such as the Tesla Roadster).
The evolution of the EV is a promising automotive solution that in addition to reducing air pollution, maintenance costs and a dependence on foreign oil, also reduces noise emissions.
Millions of people live near busy roadways, thoroughfares, intersections and parking lots with vehicle noise at all hours of the day and night. Because electric motors produce less sound than Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs) requiring a tail pipe muffler to mitigate noise emissions, EVs make urban life more livable for affected residents. Consumers are attracted to EVs because they are quieter vehicles.
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), an advocacy organization for its sight-impaired members is lobbying the government to mandate artificial vehicle sound on EVs. They are also collaborating with automakers to voluntarily introduce artificial vehicle sound. They claim that EVs pose a safety risk for sight-impaired pedestrians who rely on hearing an approaching vehicle to judge its speed and proximity while navigating intersection crosswalks and other traffic situations.
When the NFB first announced that EVs presented a danger, the media attention was considerable, with coverage in newspapers, television news, automotive blogs and even making the rounds of late-night comedy monologues. However, few questions were raised on the issue on the impact of increased noise pollution on society.
In 2007, the NFB provided seed money to a start-up company called Enhanced Vehicle Acoustics to design external loudspeakers on EVs. They have built prototypes for use on the Toyota Prius with the intention of licensing their technology to automakers.
In 2008, the University of California published a study that evaluated the effect of sounds emitted by EV and ICE vehicles traveling at five miles per hour. Subjects claimed they could detect the sound of an internal-combustion vehicle when it was twenty-eight feet away, but could not detect the sound of a hybrid vehicle (in battery mode) until it was seven feet away. The study was funded by the NFB.
A controlled laboratory environment is very different than the environment of city streets where the din of traffic often masks individual sounds of vehicles in motion. Most vehicles produce low frequency sound energy that is non-directional. The broader implication is that any type of vehicle including motorcycles, scooters, mopeds, segways, bicycles also present a danger to the blind.
In 2008, the NFB lobbied the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to hold a public hearing on the issue and called in government policymakers, automotive industry representatives and blind-advocates to testify. Representatives from NFB testifed calling for additional studies and legislation mandating artificial vehicle sound on EVs.
In 2008 and 2009, the NFB lobbied the United States Congress to enact what is now called the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. The bill is sponsored by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Arlen Spector (D-MA). It would direct the Secretary of Transportation to study and establish a motor vehicle safety standard that provides for a means of alerting blind and other pedestrians of motor vehicle operation.
In 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a technical report titled, 'Incidence of Pedestrian and Bicyclist Crashes by Hybrid Electric Passenger Vehicles' (DOT HS 811 204) comparing the incidence rates of pedestrian and bicyclist crashes that involved EVs and ICEs under similar circumstances.
A total of 77 pedestrians and 48 bicyclists involved in crashes with EVs were sampled (compared to 3578 pedestrians and 1862 bicyclists involved in crashed with ICE vehicles comparatively). Within the sample group, there was a statistical difference in cases where EVs have a higher incidence rate when backing up or making a turn at slow speeds. There was no difference when both types of vehicles were going straight. There was no mention whether any of these accidents were caused by extraneous circumstances, such as distracted drivers or pedestrians using mobile phones or listening to music.
NHTSA noted that the results of the study was not intended to make national estimates on the issue, because the results were based on a small sample size. That caution however, did not hinder NHTSA and NFB from touting the report as a watershed in the national media.
Even if artificial vehicle sound is mandated on EVs, there are differences in sound energy. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates the use of back-up alarms on trucks for safety. However, the intense piercing noise emitted from current back-up alarms is a noise hazard for workers and a nuisance for nearby residents. Improved back-up alarms emit a broadband sound (white sound) that dissipates over a discrete distance reducing noise pollution. OSHA has never acted to mandate broadband sound in spite of repeated calls to do so. As NHTSA is oblivious to the public health issues of noise pollution, representation from noise control advocates are shut out of the dialog.
While the United States Congress recognized the deleterious effects of noise pollution, no federal agency is mandated with monitoring its health and environmental consequences, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) where its Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) was essentially defunded. As a result, the problem of elevated traffic noise caused by artificial vehicle sound is unregulated with no protections afforded to the public.
There are developing technologies that can alert blind pedestrians to EVs. One solution is a simple receiver device sight-impaired persons can wear that will emit an audible sound when an EV is in close proximity. EVs equipped with a matching transmitter sends a signal to the device relative to its distance. This would produce a discreet alert to blind pedestrians that would have no effect on increasing noise pollution.
This concept has been summarily rejected by the NFB and they are pushing for external loudspeakers on all EV vehicles. The NFB is trying to mandate a public safety measure, ignoring the public health ramifications on noise pollution recognized by leading health organizations, scientific and medical publications and peer-reviewed journals.
The NFB is using money and political clout to increase noise pollution levels and adversely affect millions of people in the name of pedestrian safety.
The Money Trail
Why are automakers and technology companies so eager to develop artificial vehicle sound?
By aligning itself with NFB and voluntarily adding external noise to its vehicles, the auto industry hopes to avoid any additional government regulation. By hedging that the government may mandate artificial vehicle sound, technology companies see financial opportunities with patent licensing fees to automakers.
The marketable 'look at me' statement is part of the experience of buying and driving a new car. This is especially true for expensive sportcars, such as the $87,000 Fisker Karma that exudes conspicuous consumption.
Lotus Cars and Harman International Industries created a hybrid demonstrator vehicle that simulates gasoline engine noise using loudspeakers rated at 300 watts each, louder than most car stereo systems. They call it a 'Safe & Sound' vehicle.
Many consumers have negative views of battery-powered cars: small, underpowered, range limited, and boring. EVs lack the aggressive 'vroom vroom' quality that some consumers look for in a new car. Instead of a vehicle that is simply quiet, automakers can sell noise as something futuristic and high-tech.
In the case of Nissan, their sound engineers worked with film composers to create a custom sound that has been described as reminiscent of the futuristic flying cars in the dystopian motion picture, Blade Runner.
In so much the way noise from straight pipes on motorcycles is often justified as a safety feature, the auto industry is attempting to justify the same for artificial vehicle sound.
The Society of of Automotive Engineers (SAE) created a 'Safety and Human Factors Committee' for quantifying the sound levels emitted by EVs. The SAE had previously collaborated with the American Motorcyclist Association in creating a system for measuring sound on motorcycle exhaust systems, intended to obfuscate EPA motorcycle label match-up, an effective system for law enforcement to catch riders with illegal straight pipes.
The irony is that the auto industry is infamous for resisting safety improvements, such as seat belts (invented in the 1880's and not implemented until the 1950's) and airbags (invented in the 1950's and not implemented until the 1980's). In the case of artificial vehicle sound, the industry is racing to develop a solution to a non-existent safety problem. More so, the industry is astroturfing the issue of pedestrian safety.
An aftermarket parts supplier, Sigma Automotive, sells aftermarket hot-rod exhaust systems for the Toyota Prius on the basis that exhaust noise improves safety. As the vehicle does not displace exhaust gases in battery mode, the logic of turning the Prius into a muscle car for safety is completely lost.
Plug-In America, an advocacy group that works to promote the widespread adaption of EVs is against mandating artificial vehicle sound. Their position on safety is that EVs are quiet, but not silent. They claim that at parking lot speeds, an EV will produce similar sounds as ICE vehicles because of various fans, pumps, and tire noise.
Artificial Vehicle Sound
The technology to produce artificial vehicle sound consists of external loudspeakers and a controller device that produces fake engine noise or branded sound effects by automakers. Custom sounds added by the consumer are also possible.
Nissan and Fisker Automotive are consulting with sound effects studios to develop distinct sounds for it's upcoming EVs. The vehicles use external loudspeakers which has the effect of keeping the passenger compartment quiet while the noise is heard outside.
Automakers recognize that the way mobile phone ringtones convey a brand, vehicles can also be added with distinct 'car tones' to convey its own branding. Ringtones on mobile phones is an estimated billion dollar business that is a highly profitable segment of the music industry. The marketing and revenue opportunities will come at the expense of residents captive to unwanted noise.
Fisker Karma Plug-In Hybrid
A set of loudspeakers embedded in the front of a Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid sportscar.
Toyota Motor Corporation is a Japanese automaker and the world's largest producer. Toyota is consulting with NHTSA, NFB and SAE on artificial vehicle sound for its EVs.
General Motors (GM) is the automaker that developed the EV1, the first mass-produced electric vehicle of the modern era. Amid accusations GM self-sabotaged the program to avoid government regulation requiring 'zero emission' vehicles on the market, the cars were subsequently repossessed from lease-holders and destroyed.
GM is equipping its upcoming Chevrolet Volt with a driver-activated system that will emit an audible horn pulse when the driver pulls back on the turn-signal switch. In 2009, GM announced that it is collaborating with NFB to add artificial vehicle sound in future EVs, what they call 'Safe Sound Alert'.
Ford Motor Company
The Ford Motor Company is the maker of several brands of vehicles including its own namesake Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury. They also own Volvo Cars of Sweden, a stake in Mazda of Japan and Aston Martin of England. The company has argued for standardized sounds but is against personalized sounds they claim would get lost in the general din, not meeting the objective of pedestrian safety.
Honda Motor Company
Honda is the sixth largest automobile manufacturer in the world. The company has several hybrid vehicles on the market. Their vehicles are not known to contain artificial vehicle sound.
Chrysler is developing EVs, it is not yet known what their position is on artificial vehicle sound.
BMW is a German automaker known for its performance and luxury vehicles. They are developing EVs and considering adding artificial vehicle sound. They are also considering the possibility of allowing consumers to custom choose their own sound effects.
Tesla Motors is the maker of the all-electric Roadster. Tesla is currently monitoring research and regulations on the issue, but has no plans to introduce artificial vehicle sound.
Nissan is the third largest automaker based in Japan and also manufactures the Infiniti luxury brand. Nissan is introducing its all-electric Leaf vehicle in 2010. The vehicle is reported to emit a high-pitched artificial vehicle sound that is intended to sound "futuristic" at low speeds.
Fisker Automotive is introducing its Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid sportscar in 2010. The vehicle will include external loudspeakers that will emit a custom sound. The company consulted with sound companies based in the film industry to produce its sound.
Lotus Engineering / Harman International Industries
Lotus Engineering is an automotive consultancy division of Lotus Cars. Harman Becker Automotive Systems, a division of Harman International Industries is a maker of branded audio systems and automotive electronics.
Lotus Cars and Harman are collaborating to create what they call Electronic Sound Synthesis, a technology to create simulated engine noise inside and outside the car using front and rear-mounted loudspeakers, through an amplifier and controller tied to the accelerator pedal, to simulate the sound of an ICE when accelerating.
The set of loudspeakers positioned in the front of the vehicle is rated at 300 watts each, louder than most car stereo systems. Lotus developed a 'Safe & Sound' Hybrid technology demonstrator vehicle using a standard Toyota Prius.
Conversely, they are also developing noise management technologies designed to mitigate road and engine noise inside the passenger compartment. The company intends to market its various technologies to other automakers.
Lotus is collaborating with the UK-based Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association to develop the system.
Lobby your legislator not to support bills mandating artificial vehicle sound. Contact automakers and express your views that as a pedestrian and a motorist, you do not support their efforts.
Not all NFB members support what the organization is doing. Many sight-impaired members and their families also want quiet in their lives and communities and recognize that additional noise does not improve safety. If you are a member of NFB, make your voice heard at meetings.