The 2013 Kia Soul (left) and 2013 Chevy Volt (right) prove that electric car design is getting better visually, but manufacturers are still ironing out the dangers of their silent operation.
California Governor Jerry Brown has opened the door for electric cars to navigate California's state roads in 2013, which means the remaining U.S. states that haven't already will be following suit in short order. The widespread use of electric vehicles on American roads is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and noise pollution which is all good news, right?
Yes, but no – one thing about the noise that emanates from gas-powered vehicles and the resulting roadway noise is that drivers and pedestrians have always utilized that noise to gauge the distance and speeds of vehicles for safety purposes. In other words, silent electric vehicles on the road bring with them a new safety hazard – without sound to inform us about where and when another oncoming vehicle is, what safety measures are being put in place to prevent pedestrians and other motorists from potential collisions with these new noiseless vehicles?
Bicyclists have dealt with this conundrum forever, and perhaps more than any other roadwau users understand the inherent dangers. Cyclists face the risks of pedestrians stepping or even running into roadways without looking, having no auditory warning that a bike is heading their way at speeds of 20 mph or better. Of course, auto drivers have no way of knowing a bicyclist is sharing the roadway unless they can see them; bicyclists, on the other hand, depend on hearing autos coming and going, and use sound to gauge their movements.
Of course, the electric car is a welcome instrument in the fight against noise pollution, and like all new things that affect large groups of people in revolutionary ways, the kinks must be worked out before hindsight dictates how we should have planned it.
Remember, car, buses and trucks have brought much of the world health-threatenening noise pollution that has distrupted sleep patterns and escalated stress and health problems in humans, animals, and even plant life. Noise pollution rates worldwide are horrendous, effecting everything from health to workplace productivity, academic abilities and real estate values everywhere.
Something had to be done to lower the decibel levels of the world’s roadways, and it’s a relief to know that electric car manufacturers are working on doing exactly that. But electric vehicles and hybrids are actually too quiet – there is no way to know of their presence unless you can see them, and without eyes in the back of our heads the danger of accidents is extremely high.
The only solution, according to the experts, is for all vehicles - electric, hybrid and internal combustion engine powered - to be subjected to the installation of a special audible vehicle alerting system (AVAS) if they are deemed silent or nearly silent. Additionally, plans are in the works for creating different sounds that tell others if a vehicle is at a standstill or backing up. In fact, electric car manufacturers are trying out a variety of warning sounds to replace the polluting kind these new vehicles are eliminating, and they’re testing out everything from sounds that mimic regular car sounds to UFO-style signals.
In the U.K. town of Hitchin, researchers for NoViSim - a partnership team of engineering companies that specialize in the understanding of sound and vibration through interactive simulation data - are using computer simulation technology to replicate the entire town, and then testing all the possible scenarios in which silent electric cars could cause an accident.
Researchers say that getting electric car warning signals just right is actually very challenging, not because they can’t come up with warning sounds that can be heard, but because the warning sounds are more confusing to pedestrians and other drivers than anything. So far, the beep-beep-boop sounds they are devising do little more that elicit looks of confusion.
Will people learn quickly to recognize warning sounds created for electric cars, or should researchers be concentrating on warning sounds that actually replicate traditional car noises? The problem with that, researchers say, is that the sounds we are used to come from the automobile’s internal combustion system, an extremely complex sound that would require expensive hardware and technology to be feasible.
The research also begs the question, will the new auto warning sounds replace the old, traditional automobile noises by adding a new layer of unwelcome sounds to the environment – a space-agey noise pollution, if you will?
The U.S has already passed the legislation necessary to require electric vehicles to make noise when traveling at slower speeds. Europe is following suit, and some auto manufacturers, like Nissan, are already on it. Nissan’s all-electric Leaf, for instance, comes with sounds for both forward and reverse at low speeds. But the Leaf’s high-pitched warning sound is not a familiar one, and certainly not one people expect from a car, so the adaptation period could take some time.
Ironically, electric car buyers are in it precisely for the vehicles’ quiet operations, and the warning sounds undermine that intention to some degree. Still, it’s impossible for roadway vehicles to operate safely without some sort of auditory warning signals.
Others studying the issue are coming up with a variety of ideas – ring tines, for instance, similar to those that identify an incoming cell phone call. The added bonus here would be that people could choose their own ring tone for their car’s warning signals.
How would that work, though, if no one but the vehicle driver understood that "Who Let the Dogs Out woof, woof, woof, woof" signifies that the car next to you in a parking lot is about to back out, when another driver may have programmed the same song to mean they’re slowing down for an upcoming light? In other words, this could never work because of its sheer lack of uniformity, which is critical to something as universal as traffic behavior.
Welcome to the transitional world of noise pollution abatement. Everyone wants quieter roadways, but it’s obvious that traffic noise serves an important role in safety. Although the future of electric cars is here, and it’s not going to go away, it will be a while before all the kinks are worked out, In the meantime, noise barriers are perhaps the number one defense in reducing traffic noise pollution in residential and commercial communities.
You know that feeling, that deep seated anger and helplessness you feel when a boom car pulls up next to you at the 7-11? You’re just trying to put gas in the tank and get on with your day, when all of a sudden the pavement beneath your feet shakes, and your stereoceillia – you know, the bundle of fibers in the inner ear hair cell that mechanically responds to vibration – gets so stressed, you’re going to spend the rest of your life struggling with tinnitus just because you stopped for gas.
But the kids in the boom car are oblivious to your pain. Apparently, they’re enjoying the music at decibel levels that rival those expressed by a jet engine taking off in the parking lot next door. How can they even identify it as music, you ask? It could be the sounds of the End Times, or the first rumblings of a tsunami for all anyone knows. There is no deciphering anything musical, with the exception of that deep, sonic, rhythmic boom, boom, boom that tells you someone was concerned with a beat here.
If you’re not sure where this is going, I’m straying from my usual textbook style blog posts to vent about boom cars, and their menace to society and all things decent.
Don’t get me wrong, I love music, and I love mine loud -- louder than is probably safe for my hearing, but not so loud that I can’t hear it. I like to decipher the lyrics and separate the instrumentals, and I believe that if you’ve never listened to Ode to Joy at vibration-causing decibels, you’re missing a spiritual experience of epic proportions. But I digress.
I do this risky music listening business with headphones because I am a considerate human being who does not want to force my need for high volume on anyone else. It’s rude, and dismissive of their space. But my listening habits couldn’t begin to rival the decibel levels of a boom car.
I understand the need to feel great music pulsing through the nervous system, I grew up listening to my music Pete-Townshend-went-deaf-because-it-was-so-loud, loud. We played our music loud but we didn’t take it to ear the drum shattering levels of today’s boom cars – and we’re still going deaf!
It makes you wonder if this generation of youthful boom car riders are going to be getting cochlear implants at age 25 due to their recklessness.
An organization called Noise Free America believes that the U.S. needs to reestablish an office of noise abatement and control. Noise free America believes that noise pollution has reached epidemic proportions, and we’re all going to go insane because of it.
Not really, I made that insane part up, but I do believe boom cars will drive 70 percent of the U.S. population insane, and that’s probably a scientifically provable figure.
The boom car industry is, well, booming and there seems to be no end in sight. Young people do not believe they will ever go deaf, and they don’t care if the rest of us do. Even more horrifying, their cars are integral to their 21st century version of a mating ritual. I can see the attraction – there can never be conversation, so no need for social skills, demonstrated brilliantly by the unwillingness of boom car owners and passengers to show an iota of consideration to anyone around them. So these couples are made for each other.
The boom car industry has also taken a terrible thing to new levels, in addition to promoting boom cars on the highway – you know, those same highways the rest of us travel? Creating an everyday hazard to society apparently isn’t enough. The boom car industry now underwrites national and international competitions that award those who can produce the loudest sound from their boom car. Wait, it gets even more incredible.
The boom car industry isn’t creating this monster alone – it has help from stereo companies that create the specialty stereo systems that blast music at outlandish decibels within the small space of a car! And it has help from an entire niche of auto body and electronics companies that build the cars and make them all shiny and pretty and irresistible to young, impressionable people who haven’t experienced the ravages of hearing loss yet, but who are desperate to pick up girls. It’s a lethal combination. And boom car owners, most of whom are about old enough to work minimum wage jobs if they’re not up all night trolling in their boom cars for girls, are spending thousands of dollars to get their boom cars ready for these competitions. Maybe they have excellent paper routes.
According to Noise Free America (NFA), these boom car competitions are called dB drag racing competitions, and they say that these contests are “not just ‘boys being boys’ or ‘good clean fun.’" Noise Free America says these competitions create death machines, due to the extreme intensity of sound and the ultra-low frequency levels produced.
Now this is really important – the extreme density of sound and the ultra low frequency levels produced – to sit in some of these boom cars during a sound competition, NFA says, would mean instant death.
“This type of vehicle is reinforced and highly modified to accommodate the massive amounts of amplifiers, sub-woofers, and electrical equipment,” the NFA report says.
The sound produced by some of these monsters is accomplished by remote control. More contestants than you want to know have blown whole ear drums in these competitions, and these are people who are still in their teens and early 20s. Unlike lizard tails, ear drums don’t grow back. Someone should explain this to them.
And, though some of these boom cars are not street worthy, young people who witness these competitions are inspired to go home and build their own boom car to drive on the street. Thus, even more of these hazards are on the road to menace and disrupt the peace and safety of society, and all that we know to be good and decent.
Boom car operators thrive on getting attention and being noticed. The more intense the decibels and the lower the frequency, the more respect and bragging rights they have over their peers - at least until the instant death part happens.
Many organizations and publications that promote green living, green construction, green manufacturing, and green energy focus on unhealthy pollutants that take the form of toxic or non-biodegradable waste.
Isn’t it time to include noise in the roll call of un-green, unhealthy pollutants?
Green living has taught us that every time a SUV is driven solo (no passengers), it’s adding more than 1.5 pounds per mile of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the environment. In the spirit of living green, many of us have changed our driving habits for the sake of the environment. We drive smaller cars, we carpool, and we take short trips on foot or by bike instead.
We buy reusable containers for carrying around water, and when we do buy bottled, we recycle the empties. We feed our families more organically-grown foods these days, and clean our homes with non-toxic cleansers because living green is healthier.
So when you consider the toll that noise pollution is taking on our health every day, you would think that addressing noisy matters would be number one on the list of “green living” priorities, or at least in the top five.
Noise pollution is a modern plague; it affects our hearing, our sleep patterns, our performance levels, and even the way food tastes. It has been documented to increase risks of heart disease and stroke. Noise pollution – from the neighbor’s constantly barking dog, to the unwelcome sounds of air and ground traffic, construction, manufacturing plants, lawn equipment and the hundreds of sources of ambient sounds that infiltrate our space daily – is not a component of green living.
Exposure to sound levels in excess of 85 decibels for more than eight hours is potentially unhealthy. Eighty-five decibels is roughly equivalent to the noise of heavy truck traffic on a busy road.
Above 85 decibels, hearing damage is related to sound pressure (measured in decibels) and to time of exposure. The major cause of hearing loss is occupational exposure to noise, although other sources (particularly recreational noise) are also culprits. Studies suggest that children seem to be more vulnerable than adults to noise induced hearing impairment. Children in noisy environments are also found to have more difficulty reading and learning, and experience a diminished quality of life.
Children, the elderly, and those with underlying depression may be particularly vulnerable to noise pollution because they may lack adequate coping mechanisms.
Noise pollution impairs task performance at work and in school, increases errors, and decreases motivation. Focusing, problem solving, and memory are most strongly affected by noise.
Although noise pollution is not believed to be a cause of mental illness, it is assumed to accelerate and intensify the development of latent mental disorders, anxiety, stress, nervousness, nausea, headache, emotional instability, argumentativeness, sexual impotence, changes in mood, increase in social conflicts, neurosis and psychosis. Population studies have suggested associations between noise and well-being, the use of psychoactive drugs and sleeping pills, and increased mental-hospital admission rates.
Noise levels above 80 decibels are associated with both an increase in aggressive behavior and a decrease in behavior helpful to others. News agencies regularly report violent behavior arising out of disputes over noise, often ending in injury or death. The effects of noise may help explain some of the dehumanization seen in the modern, congested, and noisy urban environment.
Noise pollution effects the environment very differently than regular fossil fuel pollution, but it can still have very negative effects. For this reason, many states and counties have developed noise control laws that designate exactly how much noise a vehicle can legally emit, or how loud a band can play in an outdoor restaurant. The problem with noise control laws, however, is they can be very difficult to enforce.
Green living is the healthy result of decades spent educating people on the ill effects of pollutants and ways to undo their damage. It’s time to include noise in the green education process that has produced citizens who recycle, compost, preserve water and energy, and look at the items bought and used every day differently than their parents and grandparents did.
It’s time to up the bar; involve citizens in managing noise wherever possible, and demand that businesses and other noise offenders do the same.
Noisy generators and HVAC units, pool pumps, car stereos played at heart-pounding volume and noise generated from a cranked home stereo all contribute to noise pollution. Even the drive to work and the eight-or-more hours spent there expose us to onslaughts of noise – construction, traffic, sirens and horns blaring, manufacturing plants, machinery and more – that take a toll on our health and wellbeing.
Even after years of living with noise in our daily lives, when we think we have become accustomed to it, our bodies are singing a different tune in the form of gradual hearing loss, cardiovascular disease, stress, sleep deprivation and other symptoms.
For one week, everyone shoud take note of the various noise sources that have become a part of their everyday lives. This might be a good start to recognizing those sounds that are harmful, and finding solutions to managing or eliminating the most damaging culprits.
We can even adapt some existing green slogans to eradicating noise:
Green revolution, the best solution to noise pollution.
I hear the Eco.
Be Quiet! Go Green!
There are no Federal regulations specifying what materials can be used to create sound barriers along any stretch of U.S. highway. State DOT officials choose the type of highway traffic barriers that go up along their district roadways, often basing their decision on multiple factors such as budget, aesthetics, durability, maintenance and public input.
The American public has a love-hate relationship with highway noise barriers. Those living closest to noisy highways and rail tracks are most appreciative of sound barriers, which offer them the benefits of increased privacy, better views, a quieter living environment and a healthier lifestyle.
A primary consideration when determining the appropriate design for a noise barrier is the visual impact it will have on the area. Placing a tall barrier adjacent to communities with one-story homes can impede the view and the whole aesthetic dynamic. When it comes to addressing the noise barrier size issue in these communities, one answer is to provide staggered elements, such as native vegetation and other appropriate landscape, to the foreground to reduce the barrier’s visual impact.
Planning the placement of sound barriers is extremely important when it comes to retaining a visually pleasing value within the neighborhood. One rule of thumb that is often adhered to is to locate the noise barrier approximately four times its height from adjacent homes and buildings, and to install landscaping close to the barrier.
Ideally, highway sound barriers should harmonize with their surroundings as much as possible. Some sound abatement materials used in highway barriers are more adaptable than others; in addition to visual considerations, planners look for sound barrier materials that are low maintenance, easily installed and durable.
Sound barriers can have a psychological effect on motorists, a factor that is considered in the design process. The design of noise barriers in dense urban settings will be different than the barriers installed in rural and suburban areas. On urban highways, sound barriers need to be designed to avoid monotony for the motorists, who tend to notice things like surface texture, overall form and color. DOT planners have found that by varying the materials
, forms and surface treatments of the barriers, they can combat the “tunnel effect” that motorists experience driving long stretches alongside an unchanging sound barrier wall.
Graffiti is always a potential problem with noise barriers. Using a sound barrier material that can be easily washed or painted is an excellent preventative measure that planners can take, particularly in areas where graffiti is probably going to be an issue.
Vegetation, if it is dense and tall, can provide a very small measure of noise dampening, but not nearly enough to achieve any serious noise reduction
along a busy highway. The best idea is to use trees and vegetation to camouflage the barrier for a visually pleasing solution to highway noise.
Most people who live or work near a highway noise barrier are pleased with the reduced levels of traffic noise, and there is a general consensus that the benefits provided by highway noise barriers far outweigh their disadvantages. While noise barriers do not completely eliminate all highway traffic noise, they do reduce it substantially and improve the quality of life for those who live and work next to busy highways or train rails.
We live in an increasingly noisy world. As population densities increase, buffer space between residences, office parks and recreational public space diminishes. Homes and offices are increasingly built closer to highways and industrial land uses. Often, noisy activities such as construction, roadway traffic and airline traffic are forced into close proximity with these noise-sensitive areas; not even hospitals and schools are spared.
Noise can degrade our quality of life, affect our health, interfere with sleep and adversely affect property values.
Luckily, more architects, construction managers and homeowners are taking proactive steps toward silencing existing noise problems and preventing new problems before lives are disrupted. Once noise levels are known (either by measurement or forecast) today’s planners and architects can minimize the effects of noise on surrounding areas using noise barriers and state-of-the-art sound proofing technology that didn’t exist just 10 years ago.
Noisy neighbors and activities can create unpleasant noise levels in some of the quietest areas. Motorcycles, loud music, late night parties and even home equipment such as heat pumps and air conditioning units can disturb the neighborhood peace and quiet that most of us long for when we’re at home.
Traffic noise is determined by the daily and peak-hour volume of traffic, travel speed, number of lanes, terrain, type of vehicles and the location of the highway in proximity to residential properties, hotels, churches, schools, hospitals, and all locations that require a quiet setting. Noise mitigation on a busy highway or a roadway is often accomplished with a noise barrier designed specifically for this type of setting. Sound abatement window treatments and walls can also be used to reduce noise levels indoors. The FHWA Traffic Noise Model (TNM) is used to analyze and predict traffic noise based specific parameters, and is often used to design adequate noise barriers.
Airliners are loudest on take-off, especially for locations behind and under the departure flight path. Landing aircraft are typically much quieter. The FAA has published the Integrated Noise Model (INM) and Helicopter Noise Model (HNM). These computer models are used to generate noise contours or "footprints" of average noise levels based on the number of operations and aircraft types. Areas exposed to levels above Ldn (Day Night Level) 65 are considered to be "noise impacted,” and nearby homes and buildings would benefit tremendously from noise barriers and other noise abatement solutions.
Light rail train and railroad operations can also raise noise to significant levels. DOT regulations require that a horn or signal at certain sound levels be used at road crossings. Diesel locomotives produce a great deal of low frequency noise. Once the locomotive is past, squealing wheels, air brakes and other track noises remain. Standard FTA methodology is used to predict railway noise, based on number of trains, track conditions, speed, grade, and similar factors.
The noise levels can make living near train or railroad operations unbearable unless the proper sound abatement solutions are put in place. With light rail train construction on the rise across the U.S., planners have begun incorporating noise barrier systems into existing and new train projects wherever noise is a problem.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal agencies specify acceptable noise levels for residential projects.
For sites exposed to noise above Ldn 60, there is the potential for impact. Sites exposed to outdoor noise up to Ldn 65 are considered “normally acceptable” for residential development. HUD requires a noise study whenever the site is within certain distances of major roads, rail lines or airports. The study must examine both present and future conditions, projected at least ten years out (although twenty years is the standard of practice.)
Noise is fast becoming one of the most pressing public health issues in society today. Noise pollution affects everyone, and long term health projections for people subjected to high noise levels over continuous periods of time are bleak; stress, heart disease, hearing loss and other noise-related maladies are becoming serious problems worldwide. Luckily, there are proven methods of reducing noise and creating healthier living spaces.