NHTSA says your Tesla can’t be this quiet starting Sept., 2019

We at Teslarati are all in favor of making vehicles as safe as possible. Indeed, in our research and analysis of Teslas, we were proud early on in 2013 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) awarded the Tesla Model S a 5-star safety rating, not just overall, but in every subcategory without exception. It was so safe, in fact, that the all-electric sedan broke the testing equipment at an independent commercial facility. Fast-forward to 2015. The Model X was the first SUV to be five-star in every category, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. It even won the prestigious Golden Steering Wheel (Das Goldene Lenkrad) award for best SUV this year.

Safety is important and should be primary to any driving situation. It should prevail over luxury features, style, and even comfort. However, a new NHTSA regulation that purports to target safety in its language is little more than a superficial gesture within a larger framework of driver, passenger, and pedestrian concerns.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 141, which will begin on September 1, 2019, requires all newly manufactured hybrid and electric light-duty vehicles to make an audible noise at speeds below 19 mph. The sound requirement has been designed to help pedestrians who are blind, have low vision, cyclists, and other pedestrians to detect the presence, direction, and location of hybrids and EVs traveling at low speeds. At higher speeds, the sound alert will not be required because other factors, such as tire and wind noise, seem to provide adequate audible warning to pedestrians and will not be the subject of this regulation.

“We all depend on our senses to alert us to possible danger,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “With more, quieter hybrid and electrical cars on the road, the ability for all pedestrians to hear as well as see the cars becomes an important factor of reducing the risk of possible crashes and improving safety.”

Creating a social environment in which all individuals — especially those with disabilities, underrepresented groups, children, and the elderly — are physically and psychologically welcomed and safe is absolutely paramount to a healthy community. Manufacturers and drivers of hybrids and EVs do have a responsibility to contribute to such an environment.

Yet, clearly, we have a generation who has been accustomed to the sounds and smells of internal combustion engines. Wouldn’t driver and pedestrian education be a more efficacious way to ensure that hybrids and EVs do not pose a safety threat? Daniel Kahneman’s (2013) work, Thinking Fast and Slow, suggests that innovative products require a higher degree of learning than existing products. Education to help EV drivers and individuals who do not have personal access to hybrids and EVS, thus, who have not built in conscious mechanisms toward the awareness of hybrids and EVs in traffic, would have longer lasting and more permanent results.

Making the case for educating pedestrians

As the general population increases its awareness of the risks of pollution to both health and the environment, the internal combustion engine has become less desirable. As a result, battery-powered, fuel-cell electric, and hybrid vehicles are technologically viable alternatives to the internal combustion engine. And they’re beginning to take on a significant segment of the U.S. vehicle market.

Essentially, an internal combustion engine works like a cannon. The sound that results is formidable and part of our collective U.S. psyche. It is ingrained in our psychological expectations of what an engine should be. Electric motors, however, make very little noise compared with an internal combustion engine. Research on the safety implications of quiet electric vehicles has mostly focused on pedestrians’ acoustic perception of EVs and suggests that EVs compromise traffic safety. However, Cocran & Krems‘ 2013 research determined that, based on gained individual experience, drivers adjust their evaluation of noise-related hazards. Some statistical observation studies in literature indicate that hybrid or EV drivers intend to be more careful, less risk takers in traffic (Horswill and Coster 2002). Thus, it makes sense to increase the awareness factors for everyone — EV drivers and pedestrians — to create more robust safe traffic situations when EVs are added to the vehicle mix.

Adding to the sound mix

Principles to increase awareness of hybrids and EVs have generally focused on alerts, or sounds that indicate the presence of an EV. Other principles, such as orientation mechanisms, which make it possible to determine where the vehicle is located, roughly how fast it is going, and whether it is moving toward or away from the listener, extend beyond mere white or overt noises.

Education transcends any of these physical additions to a hybrid or EV. Hybrid and EV drivers as well as pedestrians should be exposed to new conceptual thinking about the place of EVs in traffic situations. Alongside the new federal safety standard that requires low speed noise, hybrid and EV automakers can build in specific educational materials to prepare their consumer base for new driving situations, which will continue to add safety awareness. With access to multiple new technologies, drivers could have multimodal educational opportunities.

  • Audio systems could provide periodic, random reminders to increase driver awareness of pedestrians and cyclists in slow speed situations.
  • Automakers could require that drivers work through a series of interactive online tutorials that accentuate driver understanding of slow speed safety adaptations with hybrids and EVs.
  • Traditional print manuals should include dedicated sections that address slow speed driver safety decision making.
  • Before-driving checklists should include explicit instruction in slow speed situations and the possibility of pedestrian interactions.

Consumer safety groups can also assume responsibility for educating their constituents about new needs for pedestrian and cyclist awareness.

  • Cyclist advocacy organizations can provide seminars to their members during events to increase strategies for hybrid and EV slow speed situations.
  • Existing support groups for persons with visual impairment can add workshops about hybrid and EVs to empower them to anticipate potential slow speed traffic situations.
  • Minimal training standards for service animals could include special animal recognition of hybrid and EVs.
  • Traditional and highly respected elderly advocacy organizations like AARP could provide print and online materials to help a generation who grew up with internal combustion engines to accommodate strategies to recognize hybrids and EVs in traffic.

Yes, adoption and diffusion of new innovations can be a long-term, complicated process. Airbags, child safety features, exhaust gas hazard, seat belts, and driver assist technologies currently provide hybrid and EV drivers with a toolkit of pedestrian safety measures. But we want more than to prevent what NHTSA says is about 2,400 pedestrian injuries each year that occur during low speed hybrid or EV/ pedestrian interactions.  We want to create a cultural climate in which a social vehicular knowledge base extends well beyond the internal combustion engine.

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