Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sound Off

I was going to do a post about the recent push to enact a law that will require all electric cars to get this: Install a device to make a noise all the time the car is driven under a certain speed! The thought is that electric cars are so quiet that they are going to be virtual killing machines, running over cyclists, the blind, poor little children, the family dog and anything foolish enough to come close to the streets once electric cars hit the showrooms.

Then, today I read an article on this subject at AutoBlogGreen by Chelsea Sexton, a long time EV advocate that has been on the front lines of the electric car movement(if you want to call it that) since she worked for GM and was involved in the EV-1 program. Anyone that has seen Who Killed The Electric Car should remember her as she was a prominent figure in the movie. Anyone that hasn't seen it needs to, as soon as possible! She managed to put everything I was thinking, and then some into words, so instead of me going on about why I think this is such a bad idea, follow the link above and read what Chelsea has to say about this, I really think she is spot on.

I have traded some messages with her in the past on this subject and one of the things she believes is that the auto manufacturers should be getting more involved in this instead of just sitting by the side and waiting to see what is legislated and she is right about that. Perhaps they don't want to look insensitive to the requests of the National Federation of the Blind? Perhaps they are luke-warm about EV's anyway so they really don't care if this hurts them. I'm not even sold that the NFB even really started this. I think there was another player(hello big oil) that brought this whole issue up. Where's the data that shows this is necessary? There have been electric cars on the roads for a while now, although not is great numbers, are they running people down? I drove my MINI-E 34,000 miles so far and managed not to kill anyone. How about the other 600 MINI-E's driving this past year, did ANYONE hit a pedestrian? I haven't heard of any incident like that. How about the GM EV-1's that were on the roads for a few years or the Toyota RAV-4's that have been out there for almost a decade, can we pull some data first before jumping the gun? Can we know what we are dealing with here before we enact laws? Also, the new cars today are so quiet you can hardly hear them unless they are under acceleration. The industry has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to make their cars as quiet as possible. Now the government wants them to add noise to them. We should be striving to reduce noise pollution, not increase it. We should be striving to make the roads as quiet and peaceful as possible so we would hear the sound of tires rolling on the pavement as an EV approaches.

I'll be contacting the executives that head up the newly formed electric car division of BMW. As one of the more active MINI-E drivers I have had the pleasure of getting to know many of the top people in the program, I even had four pages dedicated to yours truly in BMW's 2009 annual report(pages 192 to 195). I know many of the BMW executives (US & Germany) read this blog so they will probably know ahead of time that my emails will be coming. I would like to see them to take a stand on this and urge the politicians to look at the facts before rushing into legislation that may in fact prove unnecessary. If the 2013 BMW Megacity has to beep or brup or whine like the cars on the Jetsons cartoon all the time that they drive under 30mph you might as well pack it in and start the new "hydrogen car division" and keep us waiting another 20 years or so to get off oil. People are not going to want to buy an electric car, even BMW electric car if it sounds like a toy and these artificial noises do just that.


  1. This is just crazy. I don't mean to be insensitive to the blind but c'mon. Create noise pollution for the other 99.9% of the population because maybe, just maybe this will prevent a blind person from walking in front of a car. Like you said, get some credible data first before we start passing laws please.

  2. It's not being insensitive Ian. Everyone, especially the lawmakers are so worried about political correctness that sometimes they lose sight of common sense. Why the rush to make this mandatory? There will not be large numbers of EV's on our streets for a couple of years. Both the Leaf and the Volt will have low production numbers in the first year so let's just take our time and get this right. There is no dire need to push this thought so quickly without the facts unless they don't want the facts because it won't support what they are trying to do.

  3. Leave it to the politicians to ruin such a great thing.

  4. Tom, I had read that there was some complaints, but I really didn't realize that it was actually gaining traction and going to be voted on. Looks like "Who killed the quiet, peaceful car" might have to go into production if this becomes law.

    Jeremy Donegan

  5. Don't you love noise! Listen to those motorcycles! Hey, high grade car "mufflers" no longer muffle sound but increase the rev - what will people do without their rev noise. That is the problem.

  6. I really don't hate it actually. I like the rumble of a V8 every now and then, but everyday driving through residential settings do not need cars to offer sound effects. The quiet, peaceful driving experience of my MINI-E has really made me realize how much more enjoyable driving can be without the vibrations and noise that the hundreds of moving parts of an ICE generate. These artificial beeping sounds proposed for EV's are different though, they are just annoying. I can't imagine a street with 10 or 20 EV's driving along and they are all beeping or buzzing or whatever. Sheesh

  7. Tom,
    I just sent the following e-mail to Chelsea. As it indicates, I agree that only concerted organization and advocacy on the part of those who want a reasoned, well-thought out, fair solution that takes into account the very real health effects of noise pollution on all human beings as well as safety considerations will have a chance of keeping this from turning into a completely one-sided, emotion-driven outcome.

    Hi Chelsea,
    Great column on EV noise on Very well-argued and persuasive.

    I really think that the only way a reasoned, fair, multiple-perspective solution that's based on solid, long-term research of the problem, and which includes all motorized vehicles, is going to happen is if more groups -- beyond the NFB -- really work to ensure that this happens.

    I agree with Tom Moloughney, who, in his comment on your column wrote --

    "We really need to organize and fight this legislation. We can't just scream and complain about it, there is too much at stake."

    I'm ready to help -- and as an avid bicyclist who commutes thousands of miles a year on my bike, I can help on the bicycle front (I've seen a lot of posts by bikers on this issue that are, in my view, simplistic).

    Is Plug In America doing something?

    Can we start a petition that we, and others --I bet many, many current hybrid owners would sign on -- can sign on to online?

    That petition might, for instance, state that we want this issue to be approached with reason, fairness, multi-perspectivity, and rigorous empirical study that encompasses both depth and breadth, and which, as Tom suggests, brings gas cars into the empirical net as well.

    I'm beginning to wonder if the NFB knows that many more people would begin to think critically about their proposals if gas cars were included, and therefore is strategically focusing on the hybrid and plug-in models, because so few people have them.

    I see that Tom is writing about your column on his blog, and proposing action (he says he's going to contact BMW directly). I'm going to write about your column as well, as we say in media studies, I'm going to work to amplify it.

    However, it's going to take far more than columns in the media to influence this debate and ensure that there is a reasonable, reason-driven, fair outcome, rather than one based mostly on anecdotal experience and emotion.

    Without organized advocacy for a different approach than what we seem to be being pushed toward, I don't think there's much chance of changing the outcome.

    So, how do we get things going, and get together on this in a meaningful way? Any ideas?

    Christof Demont-Heinrich
    *Founder & Editor, SolarChargedDriving.Com
    *Assistant Professor, Media, Film & Journalism Studies Dept., University of Denv

  8. One other, rather different -- and kind of depressing thought -- in response to your point that no one will buy EVs if they "sound like toys."

    To me, what this means is that, in the long run, automakers will end up mimicking as closely as possible the sounds of ICEs when adding artificial noise to hybrids, plug-ins, etc. And, of course, this will only reproduce the cacophony of urban noise that we already have :-( And kill any chances we had of making the urban environment a quieter, healthier place for us all.

  9. Christof,

    Yes, we really need to make an effort to let the lawmakers know there is another side to this. You know it's politically unpopular to decline a request by the NFB, especially if they are claiming it is a safety issue. I fear the politicians will act without knowing any of the facts. Somehow, we need to get some data collected on noise levels of new ICE cars cruising at low speeds. I think this will prove they are just as quiet as an EV if they are not under acceleration. I would love to contribute to this effort.

  10. You didn't expect the oil companies to just sit by and let electric cars take over did you? Expect more of this in the next year. They are going to fund every possible cause or issue that could slow the development and implementation of electric cars.

  11. is completely silent other vehicles circulating without problems such as bicycles or hybrid cars that circulate using the electric mode, will also put the bikes sound too?
    is absurd.