U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has finalized rules regarding electric vehicles requiring that “any four-wheeled vehicle with a GVWR of less than 10,000 pounds must emit a pedestrian-warning noise at speeds below 18.6 miles per hour.”
So what will the pedestrian-warning sound like? It’s not been determined yet, writes Steph Willems, Hybriedcars.com, noting that people who have driven an electric vehicle with a pedestrian-warning noise find it “can be unsettling, even unpleasant.” Willems adds that the NHTSA hasn’t yet decided whether to give drivers a choice of sounds, though “automakers hope to have owners select from a list of regulator-approved warning tones.”
Let’s hope that someone with some taste and sense is involved in the decision-making, because the consequences of allowing brand managers and marketers to make that decision is, at best, horrifying.
Want to take a guess why? Yes, open offices. Sarah Kessler, Quartz, examines the world of open offices and the designers who try to fix them, like Aaron Taylor Harvey, the head of Airbnb’s internal architecture and interior design group. So what does Harvey do to control the din at Airbnb? His team hung “a series of banners set two feet apart and made out of recycled cotton” from the ceiling of a large open space, wrapped surfaces with “sound-absorbing panels that look like fabric wallpaper, and strategically placed sound-absorbing walls to separate areas of noisy collaboration from those with quiet focus.”
But these are new, cutting edge tech companies. They aren’t going to be satisfied with those beige fabric covered cubicle frames that traditional corporations use. No, today’s designers are making the banners like those used at Airbnb with recycled denim. “[T]hey’re ideal for companies, like Airbnb, that want to be environmentally friendly,” writes Kessler. One company makes “sound-absorption panels that look like wood, and sound-permeable paint that can help disguise a panel as a piece of art,” while another “builds sound absorption into lamps, furniture, and room dividers.”
No doubt the cost of all these high-end fixes are cheaper than, say, providing a quiet space to each of Airbnb’s employees, but at what point do corporate executives and their bean counters decide that maybe the best option is to provide employees with an office where they can actually get their work done?
TechRepublic writes about the “new study from Oxford Economics [that] claims that open office floor plans can hurt employee productivity” in a piece titled, “Here’s how to design the best office for your employees.” And once again we are compelled to respond as follows: When will this assault on employee productivity and morale end? Why can’t *they* bring back private work spaces?
It seems clear that nothing will be done until the bean counters can quantify the enormous costs of open plan offices. No doubt part of the problem is that it’s hard to put a dollar figure on employee distraction, frustration, and decreased morale. But one thing is clear, the absolute raft of articles on how much employees hate open plan offices indicates that they are a problem that needs to be solved or redesigned or otherwise dealt with. One day some newly minted management genius will rediscover pre-open plan office design, repackage it slightly, and give it a new name, and after the applause dies down, *they* will follow.
Electric and hybrid cars are noticeably quieter than cars powered by an internal combustion engine. This fact drew the attention of advocates for the blind and visually impaired a decade ago, ultimately leading to the passage of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (PSEA) of 2010. The PSEA is intended to reduce the risk of harm to blind and visually impaired pedestrians, as well as cyclists, or anyone unable to hear the very quiet approach of these cars, by requiring electric and hybrid cars to emit a minimum added sound. The issue regarding this requirement is complex and contentious, and it has generated a lot of research and extended discourse both for and against added sound. Many electric and hybrid cars have used added sound for years; samples of some sounds can be found online.
A significant concern is that some automakers see the need to comply with the rule as an opportunity to invent branded sounds, while critics of branded sounds would prefer sounds as similar as possible to a vehicle engine, noting that discordant or unusual sounds could actually create confusion. In addition, environmental advocates and soundscape preservationists have expressed concern about adding more noise to an overburdened soundscape.
One problem with reaching a sensible solution is that the instructional videos produced by industry tend to show cars and pedestrians interacting in open spaces, but real world experiences are more likely to occur in busy parking lots or residential streets. Measures such as traffic calming and slow zones could result in a growing number of areas where driving below 20 miles per hour would be the norm in order to improve safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. One thing is clear, vehicle engineers must incorporate these details into the planning of current and future warning sounds.
Asked about branded sound design, Jeanine Botta, who runs the Green Car Integrity Project blog, said that she hopes sound designers will follow the rule’s requirement that sound be recognizable as a motor vehicle in operation, and let go of branding concepts. “Our attention is already stretched to its maximum potential. No pedestrian – or cyclist or motorist – should have to quickly process and interpret any sound, especially one intended for safety. If a sound is the least bit discordant, it runs the risk of being misinterpreted and ignored.”
Automotive product developers considering new and improved added quiet car sound should include industry outsiders in the research and development process. Consultation with environmental psychologists, environmental health researchers, acoustic ecologists, and soundscape preservationists would be a step in the right direction.
We can’t help but think that the removal of any noise–even something as seemingly innocuous as the startup chime on a MacBook Pro–is a good thing. That manufacturers insist on using sound to indicate that some act or thing was achieved really needs to end. One hopes Apple’s move will herald similar action by other computer manufacturers until eventually one common layer of sound comes to an end.
One of the fair’s jurors noted that “designers have neglected noise in interiors for too long,” adding that they fail to consider sound because they focus solely on whether a design looks nice. Most of the designs were in response to the open floor plans corporations have adopted as a way to squeeze as many employees into as little a footprint as possible, as a “side effect of this is that workers’ productivity is increasingly affected by noise distractions.” No doubt the cost of distraction hits the bottom line in one way or another, as the article states that there is a great deal of demand for these products in Scandinavia. One hopes American designers embrace the noise reduction trend sooner rather than later.
In Dear Architects: Sound Matters, Michael Kimmelman has written a fascinating article on sound as a component of architecture. The article uses multimedia elements that allow the reader to hear the images, which makes the piece all the more powerful. Kimmelman believes that sound is an element that adds texture to a space, for example the ambient noise in Grand Central which “rises upward and outward, toward the hall’s immense ceiling, embodying the impression of the terminal as a soaring gateway to a great metropolis, promising adventure.” He also acknowledges how noisy cities have become, noting that:
During the Middle Ages, smell was the unspoken plague of cities. Today it is sound. Streets, public spaces, bars, offices, even apartments and private houses can be painfully noisy, grim and enervating.
It is the failure to consider sound when designing spaces, particularly public spaces, that allows sound to become overwhelming, to become noise. This failure of design can be heard in almost every new “it” restaurant (and the wannabes) where the only consideration appears to be the space’s visual impact. This is disconcerting because “[a]coustics can act in deep, visceral ways, not unlike music (think of the sound of an empty house).” And there is no respite from the sounds of the city when your attempt to escape the crowded and noisy streets leads you to a crowded and noisy restaurant, bar, or enclosed public space.
One hopes that architects and designers consider how the design of a space and the materials used allow the people who will use the space to appreciate the sound of their footsteps as they cross the floor or, as Kimmelman observed, the reassuring “heavy clunk” of a solid wood door over a hollow one. He adds that “we don’t talk nearly enough about how sound in these buildings, and in all the other spaces we design, make us feel.” No argument here. It is the failure to consider the affect of competing, discordant, and uncomfortably loud sounds that has made city living more difficult over the last few decades. So let’s hope that architects and designers consider how unnerving and uncomfortable spaces become when they are designed only for their visual impact and without a thought towards how they sound.
Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link. Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.