The Sound of Progress



"These fellows blow their horns just to see the people jump, I believe."

Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, 1902

At the turn of last century, the automobile was poised to overtake the horse as the preferred mode of personal transportation. But there were detractors to the coming sea change. Much as we see driverless cars as a potential danger today, "horseless carriage" opponents saw the drivers themselves as dangerous. Many laws were passed to protect pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages that seem silly now, but these edicts were taken very seriously back then. For instance, a person was required to walk in front of a self-powered carriage waving a red flag; a motorist had to fire off a signal firework every mile; or a driver had to ring a bell or gong when approaching people or other vehicles.

In 1900, the race was on to find the best engine plant for these new-fangled contraptions. Most were noisy and smelly, particularly the steam-powered auto. The ubiquitous gasoline combustable engine wasn't quite developed or refined yet. From 1895 through 1905 the electric-powered vehicle (EV) was the best-selling automobile, partly because it was quiet, easy to operate with its shiftless transmission, and it didn't belch out smoke. But the noisy, smelly, and ultimately cheaper gasoline and diesel engines would win the race. EVs were expensive, technologically difficult, and recharging and range was limited because electric power grids were sparse and in their infancy.

That's a shame, because our world would be a much quieter place had EVs won out as the dominant transportation method. Imagine walking down Main Street USA and not hearing revving engines or loud buses and trucks. Imagine a NASCAR race where the pit crew wouldn't have to wear hearing protection. But would we be safer? Our ears would be, but maybe not our bodies.

In a recent study submitted to the British Parliament by the charity Guide Dogs, it was found that EVs and hybrids were 40% more likely to be involved in an accident that harmed a pedestrian. Blind and limited-sight people can be in real danger around EVs, not to mention all the distracted pedestrians staring down at their phones. I understand this problem because I once skirted serious injury from an electric vehicle. Downtown San Francisco has all-electric restored antique trolley coaches that ride on rubber tires and are very quiet. As I casually stepped off the curb, I just used my ears to "look" both ways. I stopped myself in the nick of time and within inches of a passing trolley coach.

The alarms, bells, gongs, and fireworks have been sounded regarding quiet cars. Starting this year in the European Union (and next year in the U.S.), EV and hybrid vehicles must make artificial noise under certain conditions. When traveling under 12 mph (18.6 mph in the U.S.) or backing up, these vehicles must produce a sound similar to a combustion engine, but no louder. The sound must also indicate speeding up or slowing down, comparable to what a combustion engine would do.

How are the manufacturers responding? Jaguar's first all-electric car, the I-Pace, has a very "Tron" like sound when it accelerates. Nissan's Canto "sings" as it drives. Mercedes-AMG is working with the rock band Linkin Park to find a sound for their luxury cars. And not to be outdone, Porsche offers a $500 option in their EV sports car Taycan called "Electric Sport Sound," which "enhances the vehicle’s own sound and makes it sound even more emotional — both outside and inside the vehicle."

The laws mandating that EVs sound like smog-belching, gas-guzzling cars has me wondering what EVs would be compelled to sound like if they had won the auto race a century ago. Would we be hearing a clopping and snorting Clydesdale? A stagecoach driver whistling and whooping? Time will tell if any of these new solutions work, otherwise we might have to go back to waving a red flag. In the meantime, I'll need to decide which sound my future driverless all-electric car will have. Right now it's a toss up between the Jetson's flying car sound and a horse-drawn carriage.

UA-25904086-1 GSN-354889-D