UK study undercuts case for louder EVs

leaf-kids-and-meeditors-blog-entry3For better, and often for worse, I have been hard-wired from birth as a pretty extreme “Type A” person, which is probably a reason that, this week, I became one of the 10 percent of Americans who contract a second-round of the chicken pox called “shingles”.

A case of the shingles at age 44 is a sure sign I really need to discipline myself not to get so hyped up about things.

And yet I can’t help myself : One of things that really, really gets my blood boiling – it’s boiling right now as a write this – is the recent national law passed in the U.S. mandating artificial noise be added to both electric vehicles and hybrids.

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Cars & urban noise
I hate, hate, hate, hate — can I use “hate” here again without going too far? – urban noise. And clearly motorized vehicles with wheels comprise, far and away, the number one contributor to urban noise.

Not only do other people hate urban noise – it’s got to be at the very top of the list of things people most dislike about urban life — urban noise also poses a clear and documented physiological and psychological health threat. Sadly, this basic fact has been almost completely ignored in America’s rush to require the installation of artificial noise makers on plug-in vehicles and, yes, hybrids.

All of this based on one questionable study on hybrids and noise conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, whose authors severely qualified their own methodology, and a concerted push by a small but obviously influential lobbying group – the National Federation of the Blind – for a national law requiring noise be added to plug-ins and hybrids but not to new gasoline cars, which, of course, have been getting quieter and quieter.

One decibel of difference
Well, guess what?

A new study, this one conducted in the UK shows that – surprise, surprise – there is essentially no difference between noise levels of quiet gasoline cars and electric vehicles. And, based on this much more rational study, it appears as if the UK, in contrast to the rush-to-judgment, under-the-public-radar push-through of the National Pedestrian Safety Act in the U.S., is going to move slowly, and, yes, rationally, on the issue of plug-in vehicles and noise and safety, perhaps not even requiring artificial noise be added at all to these vehicles.

There does not appear to be any significant difference in the acoustic nature of [internal combustion engine] vehicles and [electric and hybrid] vehicles, and as such nothing suggests a pedestrian would clearly be able to differentiate between vehicle types.
–UK Department of Transport Study on EVs and Noise

According the UK Independent, a study commissioned by the UK Department for Transport warns that “careful consideration” needs to be given to the “challenging” idea of adding artificial sounds, because it risks having little impact against general background noise.

Furthermore, reports the Independent, the study shows that at low speeds of 7-8 kmh (5 mph) electric cars were just one decibel quieter than petrol cars. When speeds were increased to more than 20 kmh (12 mph), the noise levels were “similar”, with tire noise dominating.

“There does not appear to be any significant difference in the acoustic nature of [internal combustion engine] vehicles and [electric and hybrid] vehicles, and as such nothing suggests a pedestrian would clearly be able to differentiate between vehicle types,” the report concludes.

To be fair, in a separate test, 10 visually impaired people listened to audio recordings taken from the test track, as if they were waiting on a curbside, to determine at what point they could hear the vehicle. It found that in a semi-rural environment, the risk posed by electric cars was 1.4 times greater than standard vehicles, and 1.3 times greater in urban conditions.

Though, of course, “standard” vehicle isn’t defined here (actually, definitions are a pretty big issue in scientific studies).

Rational approach needed
What this UK study illustrates, I think, is that more study is needed, especially in terms of the many different and complex urban, suburban and rural settings in which an automobile and pedestrian may encounter one another.

What this study still fails to do, as far as I can tell, is to acknowledge that urban noise is a true health issue – tell me your heart doesn’t race and your pulse doesn’t suddenly erupt wildly when a loud motorcycle roars by?

This reaction to noise – which we all experience, though perhaps to different degrees — is due to an involuntary and stress inducing human reaction.

In the end, any approach to ensuring that all motorized vehicles, whether electric or not, are safe needs to take into account the bigger picture, not just focus narrowly, simplistically, and unfairly on what is supposedly the “only” issue at hand: The safety of pedestrians, visually impaired or not.

Balancing safety & noise issues
Of course, a balanced approach which would rationally take into account the issue of noise along with the issue of pedestrian safety is unlikely to occur.

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This thanks to society’s near total lack of attention to urban noise as a health issue as well as the our incredibly short-sighted and small-minded tendency to think about artificial noise in terms of a single car rather than thinking about the collective impact of tens of thousands of individual EVs and hybrids equipped artificially with noisemakers. Have you seen discussed at all in a media outlet anywhere the sound impact of 10,000 EVs equipped with husky space noises on urban downtown NYC, etc.?

There’s also a strong tendency to be swayed by emotional arguments — how could anyone question legislation pushed by the visually impaired, right?

Finally, and more broadly, there’s a tendency toward one-dimensional approaches to social issues that are inevitably way more complex than our incessant desire for quick, black-and-white solutions, of which, quite clearly, the requirement to install artificial noises on plug-ins and hybrids in the United States is one.

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