Recently, Nissan unveiled it’s “Approaching Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians” (VSP), a wonky name for the noise added to the upcoming Leaf electric vehicle (EV) at low speeds. Doing so immediately ignited a debate about the aural aesthetics of the noise itself, but it also indirectly brought more attention to the issue of adding noise to cars in the first place.
For most of a year, it’s been bubbling under the surface, since the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has instigated legislators to believe that with their (in theory) quieter motors, hybrids and plug-ins are pedestrian-killing machines in the making. Initially, there was lots of hand-wringing over the Leaf’s acoustics specifically, whose tones many people found off-putting when heard in the initial videos. This was soon replaced by a fair amount of placation by the journalists and stakeholders flown by Nissan to Japan to test the Leaf in person. “Don’t worry about the regulation”, we’ve essentially been told in various blog posts, “the Leaf sounds aren’t so bad in person.”
Except, this isn’t about the Nissan Leaf – and it’s not really about blind people either. Or rather, it shouldn’t be…
To the extent that quieter vehicles might present a problem, the blind community is hardly the largest potentially affected group. Pedestrians in general – many of whom have less sensitive hearing than the blind and are often distracted with iPods and cell phones – and cyclists would be affected too. Of course the blind should be considered, but only as part of a much broader conversation. After all, we’re all blind to a vehicle approaching from behind.
But adding sound to transportation creates other problems – raising the general ambient noise makes it that much harder to detect any one vehicle, let alone oncoming bicycles and other pedestrian hazards. There are economic issues for communities located along freeways and major streets, whose property values are often lower largely due to increased levels of noise and pollution. And there are quality of life issues from the generally higher noise pollution levels of urban areas. The percentages can be debated, but most studies agree that some significant portion of passenger vehicles will be hybridized or electrified in coming decades and transportation in general will become quieter, added noise seems like a fairly perverse version of “keeping up with the Joneses.”
RTFA. Lots of room for discussion. I admit to almost stepping out in front of a hybrid SUV in a supermarket parking lot; but, that could have happened even if it was running on the internal combustion side of the dialectic.
Giving the NFB veto power over hybrids and EVs approaches the absurd in the realm of special interest groups. I have kin who are profoundly deaf with another set of problems that might be aided – in traffic – by having every vehicle on the road equipped with strobe lights.
Once you start, when do you stop?