Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Quiet Cars Should Be Heard

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Sustainability, Climate Change, Sustainable Transportation, biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

Have you ever been startled while walking/bicycling by an electric vehicle as it rounds a corner or pulls away from a parking space or backs from a driveway or when you are crossing a parking lot? I have although it has been a very infrequent event. It is startling in its own way.

I thought it was me, not paying attention, but learned in John Seabrook's The New Yorker essay (August 8, 2022), "On Alert," that while that might be part of it, electric cars may be too quiet for our own collective good. And this is especially true for the blind or visually impaired.

Preston begins by noting that "unlike vision, smell, and taste, all of which dim when consciousness shuts down for the night, hearing is a 24/7 operation. For early humans, who were trying to rest outdoors with predators around, this trait was presumably a life-saver." Fortunately, our brains have a "filtering function," and learns to disregard "familiar and regularly patterned sounds." It is novel and and different sounds that stand out and grab our attention.

Preston writes about the different way, cities will sound when electric modes of travel "are legally mandated to replace all internal-combustion-engine (I.C.E.) vehicles." Electric vehicles (E.V.s) are incredibly quiet at low speeds; at higher speeds they create noise from both road surfaces and wind. This has an up side and down side.

Pedestrians will need information about the vehicle traffic surrounding us and in 2010, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, required that "every E.V. and hybrid manufactured since 2020 and sold in the U.S. must come equipped with a pedestrian-warning system, also known as an acoustic vehicle alerting system (AVAS). which emits noises from external speakers when the care is travelling below eighteen and a half miles per hour. (Similar regulations apply in Europe and Asia)."

Preston covers in detail the efforts "to make naturally quiet vehicles noisier." It is a long process, requiring the collection of data, taking into account the needs of the blind community, setting a minimum noise standard, establishing numerical acoustic rules (6 years and 372pp.) and designing the sounds. This was set in motion with the 2011 "Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act," called "for a 'sound or set of sounds for all vehicles of the same make and model.'"

There is a quote from John Pare, of the National Federation of the Blind (N.F.B.) that provided me a useful perspective on considering this issue. He told Preston that"society has already been trained to know what cars sound like. It's really hard to specify what a car sounds like. How do you put into regulatory legal language that a car should sound like a car?" (My italics)

Preston also describes "the vast new stage for sound designers, both inside and outside" electric vehicles. We want to avoid a "sonic plague" the most notable of one of them are the "back-up beepers unleashed by Ed Person's mid-sixties invention, the Bac-A-Larm...tempered by back-up cameras in new trucks and vans which warn only the driver and not the rest of the street, if someone is behind the vehicle." You can imagine the opposition from the N.F.B. It was "predicated on an imminent colision, rather than preventing such incidents from occurring in the first place." 

The trick is the development of an "alert (that) reaches the people who need to hear it, without annoying those who don't." Preston provides a great description: threading the "sonic needle."

You will learn, I think (I did), that making the world quieter is likely to be a struggle. Preston notes that there are sixty major auto brands world-wide. Consider that each has its own "unique identity" or that each brand comes with a customizable sound system. And then making cars just loud enough so that they can catch one's attention another.

It is a fascinating essay on city soundscapes to come and may be read here.  The on-line version is titled "What Should a Nine-Thousand Pound Car Sound Like."

By the way in reference to internal combustion engines, I'd never heard the phrase "'suck, squeeze, bang, and blow' car talk."  It refers to "the induction of air, its compression inside the piston sleeves, the explosion of the vaporized gasoline, and the expulsion of CO2 exhaust."

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