Sounds Electric

Many years ago, when I was living in Spain, I traveled by train to Basel, Switzerland. In Spain my ears had gradually become accustomed to the sounds of Iberian urbanity — the one that always registered foremost was the toxic whine (and acrid whiff) of cheap motos, clattering off the narrow streets. Stepping out onto the streets of Basel (on a Sunday, no less), I was almost overwhelmed by the stillness. So much so that, as I wandered about in a near fugue state, I was almost struck by one of the city’s trams. But it sounded a polite bell to alert me to its presence, and I survived Switzerland.

I thought of the episode when reading Dan Hill’s brilliant exposition on a recent Economist article on the idea that electric/hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, which of course make much less noise than traditional cars, represent a grave threat to urban safety, and that traditional (loud) car noise will have to be retro-fitted back into the car. I had always thought the car of the future, as depicted in sci-fi and the like, would proceed past with nothing more than a soft whoosh, but one wonders: Is this is a real issue?

Hill writes:

Let’s quickly deal with the safety issue first. People will adapt easily enough. We’ve adapted to numerous successive modes of transport in the past without the need to artificially increase the noise that mode of transport generates (though the first automobiles required a man with a flag walking in front of them. Is this not the aural equivalent of that, and so equally likely to fade away?)

One of the numerous reasons why bicycles are a more civic mode of transport is that they do not make much noise. Even at the speeds cyclists can get up to, this near-silent mode is apparently still safe enough not to warrant a pedal-powered drone, say. A bell suffices, and after that it’s about taking due care and attention on both sides. As bikes slowly become the dominant mode of personal transport in cities, this shouldn’t change. Cyclists, a few idiots aside, have to rely on individual responsibility to a greater extent than motorists, partly due to their relative fragility. This is not a bad thing necessarily – it forms a thin undulating layer of civic substrate.

Of all the possible threats cars pose to pedestrians in cities, lack of noise seems an odd crusade for the Economist to get behind — why not the speed of cars (which is a de facto explanation in all urban pedestrian fatalities), the provision of pedestrian facilities (a key reason behind literally hundreds of thousands of pedestrian fatalities in a country like India), visibility in car design (some current models have a dreadful range of sight), the weak legal penalties for striking a pedestrian, etc. etc.

We also need more than anecdotal evidence that Priuses are causing more pedestrian fatalities than other cars (see the comments in this website for an interesting discussion; and if anyone has any real data, please advise); I might imagine there would be a statistical artifact here even if there were slightly more Priuses involved in pedestrian fatalities — i.e., Prius’ market share is higher in places where there are more pedestrians. And as Hill notes, there are certainly more effective pedestrian safety strategies — ones that would benefit blind and well as sighted pedestrians — than ratcheting up noise; Volvo’s CitySafety for one. Not to mention there are already plenty of pedestrians who don’t hear my normal-sounding car because they’re wrapped up in an iPod or on the phone.

Traffic noise, or at least excessive traffic noise, after all, is a detriment to the quality of life — shown in everything from real estate values to people’s stress responses to noisy intersections (the work of Christian Nold, for example) to the negative environmental impacts (the work of Richard Foreman) — why on Earth would we want to artificially raise it, when there were other options available?

Hill’s piece goes on to consider a number of interwoven strands of cars, sound, and urban life, and he taps a wonderful passage about the horn in New Delhi from Geoff Dyers’ new novel Geoff in Venice:

“The din of horns rendered use of the horn simultaneously superfluous and essential. The streets were narrow, potholed, trenched, gashed. There was no pavement, no right of way – no wrong of way – and, naturally, no stopping. The flow was so dense that we were rarely more than an inch from whatever was in front, beside or behind. But we never stopped. Not for a moment. We kept nudging and bustling and bumping our way forward. Given the slightest chance – a yard! – Sanjay went for it. What, in London, would have constituted a near-miss was an opportunity to acknowledge the courtesy of a fellow road-user. There were no such opportunities, of course, and the idea of courtesy made no sense for the simple reason that nothing made any sense except the relentless need to keep going. From the airport to the hotel, Sanjay had used the horn excessively; now that we were in the city proper, instead of using it repeatedly, he kept it going all the time. So did everyone else. Unlike everything else, this did make sense. Why take your hand off the horn when, a split-second later, you’d have to put it back on?”

New Delhi, an incredibly noisy city, is hardly a paradise of pedestrian safety. Pinning pedestrian safety to car noise sounds a bit suspicious to me.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 8:18 am and is filed under Cities, Etc., Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

11 Responses to “Sounds Electric”

  1. Lee Watkins Says:

    here in Baltimore, many people have scooters, motorbikes, ATVs, etc. (not all of them street-legal). Lately the scooter vendors have started importing the more powerful all-electric scooter/motorbikes from China – they go about 30mph (if the limiter hasn’t been tampered with) and don’t make any sound whatsoever.

  2. Michael Says:

    I do not buy for one second the charge that EVs are too quiet. With the exception of trucks and vehicles with over-sized motors the main source of noise is not the engine but the tires rolling on the pavement. The only time I have been surprised by a car coming up behind me is when they were moving at a walking pace and were drowned out by other city noises. Prius’s et al don’t need a noise maker, the rest of the city needs to quiet down.

  3. Ian Hlavacek Says:

    For the blind and vision-impaired, vehicular noise is an absolute necessity for navigating urban roadways. The ever-present whoosh is helpful but not always sufficient — especially in situations where a blind person may not hear the sound until stepping precariously into the street.

  4. Peter Thompson Says:

    Blind and vision impaired do NOT need noise – otherwise they would be run over by bicycles or other silent machines. Blind and vision impaired use cross-walks (which have noise indicators just for them).

    What they need are people paying attention when driving their machines.

  5. Peter Says:

    yep – vision-impaired folks won’t be helped by silent death monsters. hopefully we can continue to restrict cars while building rail in our cities. one of these days us advocates will get the guts to demand significant changes.

  6. Eric Says:

    Well I have a relative who lives in L.A. And her neighbor was hit by a hybrid specifically because he was not aware it was coming. It happened right in front of his house on a residential street. It took him quite a while to recover.

    I realize that’s more anecdotal than data, but it has happened at least once.

    Didn’t we see an ad here, that said (as I recall) at 25 mph, a pedestrian hit has a 1 out of 30 chance of dying. At 35 mph it’s 1 out of 4. So if it does increase auto – pedestrian accidents, the results are significant.

    The noise does not have to be as loud or as unpleasant as an internal combustion engine. It just has to be distinct, so people identify it as a moving vehicle. It can be a whirr or a chirp. And if it’s generated by electronics, it can be adaptive. It can get louder as the vehicle gets faster, and it could change in some other way, such as frequency, to give the pedestrians more data. It can get softer if it detects lots of other vehicles around it going at the same speed, since other vehicles are providing the same information (i.e., redundancy).

  7. Ed Hillsman Says:

    I recall similar discussions in I believe the early 1990s, when GM was working on its electric vehicle of the time. There was another side issue as well. An article in the New York Times reported that because the drivetrain of the vehicle was so quiet, the various squeaks and rattles from poor assembly were no longer being masked, and were much more audible. So someone at GM suggested that perhaps some noise should be added back into the passenger compartment to mask this again. I recall thinking that this kind of thinking showed that GM still didn’t understand the quality problem–perceived or real–and that some part of this undertaking was doomed to failure.

  8. Mark Young Says:

    I support the latter comments here. Whilst I sympathise with the original argument about noise pollution and other sources of risk, as well as the point that there aren’t any hard data about this problem as yet, I believe that auditory feedback is an essential part of situation awareness on the roads – whether you’re a sighted person or otherwise. I won’t ram home the safety argument as that’s already been done, but there’s another side to this – and that’s the driver of the car. One of my colleagues did his PhD on how feedback in modern cars is degrading, more from the point of view of luxuriousness and insulation from the outside world. But the silent hybrid takes it a step further – removing cues of speed, traction etc. which are key informational components in the driving task.

  9. Michael Says:

    I have a Prius, my girlfriend has a Prius, and she also has a very narrow garage without enough space for the passenger to get into or out of the car, so I’ve spent plenty of time standing outside as she drives it in or out. A Prius is certainly not silent. It’s big and heavy like all cars and the tires make noise even at creeping speed, plus you have noises from the suspension and brakes, and inverter hum, other sounds, and possibly fans as well. If you are focused on listening only for loud engine noise, and ignore the other sounds of a quiet motor vehicle or a human powered vehicle (or plain old pedestrians, who also are not silent), then I suppose you’ll miss it, but it’s not silent. It’s certainly not silent on the road at 20 or 25 miles per hour, where the tire and wind noise are the loudest sounds from any vehicle with reasonably muffled engine noise.

    Some pedestrians on shared pedestrian/bicycle paths are alert and will notice me approaching them from behind as I slow, before I even get near or make any extra noise. Other people don’t notice a loud and cheerful ‘hello’ from right behind as I follow at their speed. I had a bell briefly, but although it’s plenty loud enough to hear, and the meaning of a bicycle-type bell ringing behind you on a shared path ought to be clear, no one, ever, not once, responded to it in any visible way at all. I think the cloaking device on the Romulan ships in Star Trek is a bicycle bell. They ding it when they don’t want anyone to notice them. People who are alert notice the rubbing of the brakes and the general banging of the bicycle over the bumps before I’m even near, people who are not paying attention, are not paying attention, and more noise doesn’t help. People drive into the sides of trains, after all.

  10. PB Says:

    here in Baltimore, many people have scooters, motorbikes, ATVs, etc. (not all of them street-legal). Lately the scooter vendors have started importing the more powerful all-electric scooter/motorbikes from China – they go about 30mph (if the limiter hasn’t been tampered with) and don’t make any sound whatsoever.

  11. Ed Throckmorton Says:

    Sound devices on motor vehicles other than car horns would seem to be illegal in the City of New York (

    24-221 Sound signal devices.
    No person shall operate or use or cause to be operated or used any sound signal device so as to create an unreasonable noise, except that:

    (a) No person shall operate or use or cause to be operated or used any claxon installed on a motor vehicle, except as a sound signal of imminent danger, provided that such operation or use shall be considered in any proceeding before the board pursuant to any applicable section of subchapter eight of this chapter of this code, except section 24-269 prima facie evidence of a violation of this subdivision, and that a notice of violation shall in every instance be issued against a person operating, using or causing to be operated or used a claxon installed on a motor vehicle.

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