Electric and Hybrid Cars

by Rodolfo Cattani

The other side of the medal, environmentally friendly but potentially dangerous.

Electric and hybrid cars are the most interesting answer to the demands on reducing harmful emissions and to limit fuel consumption. But these present an unexpected and rather serious problem: producing little sound, than can represent danger for pedestrians and bicycle riders. Cars with electrical and hybrid traction are increasingly popular and are perceived as the most efficient answer these days to the growing demands on reducing drastically harmful gas emissions and to noticeably diminish increasingly more expensive fuel consumption. The auto industry is investing a lot of money in this area in the hope of hindering the worrying gap in sales. Undoubtedly, travelling on board an electrical or hybrid car is an interesting experience and the rising interest in these green cars all over the world is not surprising. It is possible to imagine in a not too distant future that the streets of our cities will be crowded predominantly by these silent vehicles going lightly and pleasantly in all directions.
We will all appreciate the significant decrease in smog and the inconvenient noise traditional cars make, but someone will have to realize that something is wrong and that for some this new reality can represent unexpected situations of danger. Just as no one had expected that the institution of bicycle paths, which are quite appropriate per se, could turn out to be a risk factor for some pedestrians, so much so that only recently studies are being initiated to research the serious effects of this new type of vehicle.
It is not the point to doubt that hybrid cars are probably a true alternative to traditional cars and that their numbers will keep growing. It is therefore necessary to take seriously the warning by organizations of and for blind and visually impaired persons, which are beginning to document on the difficulties that these people will have when there will be so many hybrid cars circulating in our cities.
Up until now, electrical vehicles were quite few and they were predominantly used for work activities. These never meant a real danger for pedestrians and cyclists while with the cars things have changed. Electric cars, in truth still very few, use an electric engine that allows us to ride for short distances at low speed. The hybrid cars are instead much more performing; they are equipped with an internal combustion engine (gasoline or diesel fuel) and an electric engine running when the car travels at reduced speed, this means quite often in cities. The electric motor is very silent and can be heard at only a short distance. This can jeopardize the security of many people,

most of all people living with vision loss and/or hearing loss, children, seniors, maybe only distracted people and also cyclists. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the US, a leading-edge organization promoting the independence of people living with vision loss, has launched an awareness campaign to attract attention on the problem as soon as took place the first accidents and were published the results of the first studies led with scientific methods done, for example, by the University of California. It was discovered that an electric vehicle was heard by the volunteers participating in the test at a distance of only a little more than three meters, 60% less than with a car with a piston engine. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done a study with 8,387 hybrid cars and 559,703 cars with internal-combustion engine corresponding to selection criteria. A number of 77 accidents were reported involving pedestrians and hybrid cars and 3,578 accidents were reported involving pedestrians and traditional cars; 48 accidents involving bicycle riders and hybrid cars were reported and 1,862 accidents involving riders and traditional cars were reported. The assessed accidents with hybrid cars gave proportions higher than those with traditional cars: for pedestrians an accident every 108 hybrid cars against one for every 156 traditional cars; for cyclists an accident every 175 hybrid cars against one for every 301 traditional cars. This demonstrates that the NFB's preoccupations are not without basis. The European Blind Union has opportunely dealt with the matter. Electric cars undoubtedly represent a technological evolution of fundamental importance, it is also necessary however to take into account that these will create a remarkable change in the reality of urban traffic. The European Blind Union's working group dealing with mobility has reported that blind and visually impaired persons have experienced quite a few difficulties following the new set up of our city which represents a risk of eventually limit the independence of numerous street walkers. We only need to think about the complete absence of European standards concerning the acoustic signals at street lights and to the increasing number of the so-called French turn-abouts that often make it impossible for those on foot or on a bike to cross the intersection. In historical centres, we are witnessing more and more of a new type of road networks that plans on the elimination of pavements and the circulation of mixed types of vehicles along the same routes, the so-called shared surfaces. To move about in the city has then become more of a challenge for those who need clear rules, precise points of reference and well-defined itineraries like those who live with visual loss but also seniors, children and cyclists.

The chaotic situation demonstrates how in planning a common living environment, the needs of everyone are not at all taken into consideration only those of a portion of users. The principle of universal design is elegantly ignored by technical people as well as administrators who do not have a culture of accessibility and are led by the hand by partial solutions that are often discriminatory.
It is not a mystery that technological evolution is almost never guided primarily by the pursuit of the common well-being but by the strongest logic of profit. The consequence is that there is always another side to things that tends to be neglected. Getting back to the electric and hybrid cars, it is clear that solutions will need to be adequately looked into concerning the problem of security which was certainly underestimated. If traditional cars are dangerous mostly when they go at high speed, electric ones are so when they go at reduced speed, when they park or when they are closed to pedestrian crossings. The European Blind Union has played a leading-edge role in reporting this potential risk factor for many citizens who need to be heard. What then should be done?
The crucial points to take into account are the following:
1. Electric and hybrid cars are useful because they cause less atmospheric and acoustic pollution, but they can be a danger because they are less noisy;
2. This risk factor concerns a vast number of street users: blind and visually impaired persons with hearing problems, persons with other disabilities, children, seniors, sportspeople, bicycle riders and also simply distracted pedestrians;
3. Research reveal clearly that the right to independent and safe mobility for everyone, but particularly those with a sensory impairment, are seriously threatened if appropriate measures are not taken to ensure their safety;
4. This is possible through the installation on electric and hybrid cars of specifically designed signals so that it is possible to hear vehicles coming;
5. Studies and experimentations are now taking place to resolve the problem and solutions need to be made available rapidly;
6. These studies have to first concern security and then be extended to the global accessibility of the urban road network.
From what is written above, it seems obvious that dealing with the problems of persons with disabilities means in reality dealing with a large number of people as the measures taken to improve the life of those who live with a disability "always" means improving everyone's life.

Picture - Electric car