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The 2011 Nissan Leaf EV  (Source: The New York Times)
Critics like the basic premise, but say it was poorly executed

After a couple of years of debate about how to best handle the risk that silent electric vehicles pose to blind pedestrians, the 2011 Nissan Leaf EV offered up a creative solution -- artificial noises emitted while driving.  You might guess that blind rights advocates would be happy.

That guess would be incorrect, though.  The National Federation of the Blind said that while including an alert was a step in the right direction, the system was full of flaws.  Their biggest problem was with the fact that the driver could disable the alert.  States the group, "[We are] disappointed that the driver is permitted to turn off the sound.  [This] in effect, allows drivers to deactivate this important safety feature and thereby endanger pedestrians, especially those who are blind."

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind complains, "The biggest thing with us is that we don’t think the driver should be able to switch the sound off."

When enabled, the group is okay with the standard driving warning sound, which they say is "sufficient to alert pedestrians".  However, they are also displeased with the reverse warning sound, which unlike the forward noise is not continuous.  They comment, "Intermittent sound is not as effective as a continuous sound."

Another complaint they have is that no warning sounds are emitted when the vehicle is idling.

The backup noises sounds somewhat like a ringing bell or submarine sonar, while the forward noise sounds somewhat like a jet tanking off (a whistle) -- or as  Mark Perry, the director for product planning at Nissan Americas puts it, "You know that show with David Hasselhoff, Knight Rider? The forward sound reminds me of what KITT sounded like."

The sounds are generate by a synthesizer under the hood and should not disturb passengers within the cockpit, thanks to insulating layers.  The sounds measure at 2.5 kHz at the high end of the spectrum to 600 Hz at the bottom.

Nissan recruited high profile help to develop the system, including, the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology, acoustic psychology experts from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a Hollywood sound design studio that was not identified.  Interestingly, The National Federation of the Blind -- the organization that is offering up the current criticism -- also helped provide design input for the system.

Perry defends the system against the recent criticism, stating, "They’re entitled to their opinions on the sounds turning off and what the sounds should be. The on-off switch by default is in the on position, and the driver has to make a decision each time to turn it off. The switch is there to balance the needs of drivers and pedestrians, though we think most owners will leave the system on because they can’t hear the sounds inside the car."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and legislators in Congress are currently working on legislation which would mandate noisemakers in electric vehicles.  There are no such current regulations; the Nissan system was implemented merely in good faith.

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By 91TTZ on 6/21/2010 2:46:09 PM , Rating: 4
As another poster pointed out, only 0.3% of the population is blind. Does the other 99.7% of the population need to put up with an annoyance just to accommodate a tiny minority? And that's assuming that 100% of blind people want these noisemaking devices. I'm sure some would find it annoying since they'd like to be able to hear the environment around them without everything being drowned out by all of these electric cars. There will only be more and more in the future.

By afkrotch on 6/21/2010 7:55:19 PM , Rating: 2
How about this perspective.

annoyance vs not me

By lelias2k on 6/21/2010 5:15:21 PM , Rating: 2
Again, you only say that because you're not part of the 0.3%.

And people seem to think that they're adding a Harley sound to the Leaf. As far as I've been reading so far, it is a low noise that after a certain speed turns off by itself, since tire noise becomes louder.

Maybe better solutions will appear, especially once this kind of vehicle becomes more common, but for now (and for the amount of Leafs that will be on the streets), it should suffice.

By YashBudini on 6/21/2010 5:50:21 PM , Rating: 1
"Maybe better solutions will appear,"

You hit a blind person you end up on page 1 of the newspaper with a photo. The backlash would be an excellent motivator.

By GodisanAtheist on 6/21/2010 10:48:10 PM , Rating: 4
I don't understand why providing that .3% of the population with some sort of small RFID device that would inform them and only them that a silent ev is near would be so hard. Form a standard protocol, have silent vehicles fitted with it, and allow devices to inform their users to be cautious.

This way, not only are the blind protected but those listening to their mp3 players and the like protected. All the while the rest of us aren't subjected to all the various whines, pops and sqeals of supposedly silent vehicles.

By magneticfield on 6/22/2010 9:37:15 AM , Rating: 2
0.3% are visually impaired, and a large percent of the rest are morons who would cross a street without checking it (if there's no noise of an approaching vehicle).
This law would help not only the blind, but also it would prevent the Darwin Award from being properly awarded.

By JediJeb on 6/22/2010 12:14:17 PM , Rating: 2
Really though, this sound may not work at all. What if the guy with the loud pipes on the bike is a car or two in front of the Leaf. As the bike passes the blind person is still not going to be able to hear the Leaf because of the overwhelming sound of the bike or any other overly loud vehicle that may be near by. If that is going to happen what then, make the Leaf louder?

What we really need today is better drivers, not noisier cars. Unless all vehicles make the same sound level it is still going to be difficult to judge how near or far a vehicle is away for a blind person. Implement a $5000 fine for a driver hitting a pedistrian and a $5000 fine for jaywalking, would make both the drivers and walkers more responsible maybe.

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