Category Archives: cars

How many lives is a little peace and quiet worth?

Rear end of a hybrid

Photo credit: “Hybrid Butt,” Flickr/Burning Image

One of the side benefits to hybrid cars — and presumably to future electric cars that run mostly off batteries — is that they’re much quieter than standard cars with combustion engines.

Problem: blind people can’t necessarily hear them coming.

An Inland-area researcher says hybrids operating at very slow speeds pose a danger to the blind, runners, cyclists, small children and others.

“I think it’s a serious problem,” says Lawrence Rosenblum a perceptual psychologist at UCR. “But the solution is so straight-forward and so unobtrusive, there’s absolutely no reason that this problem shouldn’t be solved.”

A device could emit the subtle sound of a quiet combustion engine mixed with the whoosh of a waterfall, alerting the blind that a hybrid vehicle is nearby, he says.

Recent testing at UCR showed how pedestrians perceived the quiet hybrids.

With background noise from cars idling nearby, subjects couldn’t determine the location of a slow-moving Toyota Prius hybrid until it was within one second or 7 feet of their location, Rosenblum said. For nonhybrids, it was 28 feet from subjects’ location.

That said, the same piece notes that no actual blind people have been reported killed by hybrid cars in the last five years. Six are fatally struck by other vehicles in a typical year. So we’re talking about a fairly theoretical problem, albeit one that might turn into a real one as hybids and electric-engine cars become more popular.

That said, I’m not sure that requiring hybrids to make a racket is automatically the right answer to this problem, given the significant quality-of-life problems created by internal combustion engines in cities now. I used to live on Bank Street, a fairly major Ottawa artery, and eventually the traffic sounds started to drive me batty (at first they bothered me; then I stopped noticing them; then around year three I began to go nuts). When we were looking for a house to buy, we instantly rejected an otherwise gorgeous place that turned out to be so close to a highway you couldn’t have a conversation on the front step.

Do these concerns, even multiplied by the hundreds of millions of people for whom being struck by a quiet hybrid is not an immediate threat, balance the potential risk to the lives of a small but non-zero number of blind people? We certainly decide that convenience and economic utility are worth thousands of deaths a year.

One thing I know for sure: our traditional public-policy decision-making mechanisms are ill-equipped to answer that question.

(Via The Green Life.)

Miles Americans drove in May

Down again. The price of gasoline obviously does matter.

Making transit an appealing choice

Photo credit: “Old Bus,” Flickr/Mike9Alive

Tim Haab at Environmental Economics relates an anecdote about a car-loving friend switching to a form of mass transit:

“There’s a luxury coach service that has a park and ride stop 6 miles from my house.  The bus is equipped with laptop hook-ups and comfortable seats.  It takes 45 minutes to get downtown and it drops me off at the door to my office.  And it only cost $5 roundtrip.  Also I’m working at home 2 days a week.”

So now I’m doing the math.  That’s a savings of $16.50 a commuting day ($5 in fare plus $2 in gas).  He’s saving $96.50 a week.  $4,439 a year.

This is somebody with a pretty tremendous commute, making the trip at increasingly staggering expense. And still, it’s the luxury coach service that gets him onto the bus.

You shouldn’t make public policy based on anecdotes (even if that’s what politicians do all the time), but there’s plenty of history to suggest that it’s this kind of service that’s most likely to get drivers out of their cars — not a crowded, hot, smelly old bus where they might even have to stand for much of the trip, but a pleasant luxury coach, if not an even more comfortable train. The premium people are willing to pay for comfort is very significant. With the rising cost of gasoline, more people are butting up against their limits, but it’s still not a choice based on pure financial rationalism.

So that’s the challenge for cities and regional authorities hoping to save road money, make planning more efficient, and clean up their air: they’re not just in the business of making transit available, they’re in the business of making it desirable. And in that regard, they’ve got an awful lot to learn from the private sector.

GM bets the farm

Jonathan Rauch writes excellently in The Atlantic on just how hard it is to build a working mass-market electric car, how hard General Motors is trying to do it, and how much GM is putting on the line to make it happen.

In conversations with everyone from staff engineers to Rick Wagoner, the chairman and CEO, I heard references to the Apollo program. “John Kennedy didn’t say, ‘Let’s go to the moon and, you know, we’ll get there as soon as we can,’” Wagoner said in a recent interview in his office, atop a high-rise in Detroit. “I asked our experts, ‘Guys, do we have a reasonable chance of making it or not?’ Yes. ‘Well, then, let’s go for what we want rather than go for what we know we can do.’” With the Volt, GM—battered, beleaguered, struggling for profitability—hopes to re-engineer not just the car but the way the public thinks about cars, the way the public thinks about GM, and the way GM thinks about itself.

McCain’s silly prize

Republican presidential candidate John McCain wants to offer a $300-million prize to anybody who can devise

a battery package that delivers power at 30 percent of current costs and has “the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

Right, ’cause there aren’t billions to be made in being the first to market with that anyway.

I like the idea of prizes for technological advances — especially for fun things, like going to space without working for NASA or the Russian space agency — but they’re really only a lot of use if everyone’s not already desperately striving to get there.

Miles driven in the United States keeps dropping

The pattern of Americans driving fewer and fewer miles as the price of gasoline goes up and up is holding.

Americans drove less in March

So says the transportation department:

Americans drove less in March 2008, continuing a trend that began last November, according to estimates released today from the Federal Highway Administration.

“That Americans are driving less underscores the challenges facing the Highway Trust Fund and its reliance on the federal gasoline excise tax,” said Acting Federal Highway Administrator Jim Ray.

The FHWA’s “Traffic Volume Trends” report, produced monthly since 1942, shows that estimated vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on all U.S. public roads for March 2008 fell 4.3 percent as compared with March 2007 travel. This is the first time estimated March travel on public roads fell since 1979. At 11 billion miles less in March 2008 than in the previous March, this is the sharpest yearly drop for any month in FHWA history.

Drivers seem to be slow to react to changes in gas prices, but during and after the post-Katrina price spike, there was definitely an effect. Let’s see whether this keeps up.