Will electric motors change the urban audio environment?
This morning I drank my coffee to the accompaniment of commercial gas mowers roaring by outside my windows. It was seven am, the sun was not yet up, and the grass was soaked with dew. Earlier I sat in the dark listening to the sound of the cars on the road outside. You can tell if it rained during the night by the sound of the tires on the road. There were train whistles in the distance.
I live in the heart of a mid-sized city. My neighborhood isn’t urban, it’s residential, but the neighboring building is a posh hotel and the rail yards, though invisible, are a half mile away. Morning commuter traffic goes by outside in a steady stream. It is not quiet, but it is the background of my life here.
Yesterday, while walking downtown during rush hour, I was waiting to cross a busy intersection. People had that desperation that drivers get when they are released from their offices and headed home. It’s not a good time for pedestrians, so I’m always extra wary of the phone-mesmerized driver who doesn’t see me because, after all, I am invisible. Even with this heightened alertness I nearly walked into the path of a Tesla, whose driver, fortunately, was paying attention. She stopped and waved me by, then glided off. Silently.
Today’s electric motors are silent
The four motors in her car, one on each wheel, make virtually no noise. The engines in those lawn mowers, and railway engines will be silent soon. And I think that silence will remake the urban landscape. We’ll still have leaf blowers and circular saws ripping through plywood, not to mention the clack of nail guns tacking shingles to roofs. But the river of sound coming off of cars will become a murmur. Just the soft sound of tires against pavement. Watching the Tesla glide away I thought of this change and wondered how quickly it will come. Will it gradually repaint our daily soundtrack or will we wake up one day and notice that things are different?
We already have the technology to create trains of electric semi trucks on our highways, with one driver managing multiple vehicles, in relative silence. Can we imagine an interstate without the roar of trucks?
Giving cars soundtracks
When the first hybrids first started appearing there was discussion of this silence as a safety problem. I know that as a pedestrian my ears are trained to hear cars around me when crossing streets. It’s instinctive, but not for everyone. When you live life with earbuds constantly in your ears you lose this animal faculty. Those silent cars are even more silent, and the addiction to screens makes them invisible to many.
Designers proposed adding audio to cars that gives them an aural presence on the road, but I’m not hearing it. Electric bikes and scooters slide by as if on rails, making bike lanes another hazard. Some considerate riders give warnings, ‘on your left!’, but most don’t.
The new urban soundtrack
I am fascinated by those documentaries about Chernobyl, the silent city abandoned by humans as a poisonous deathtrap. How the wildlife thrives amongst the detritus of those who left in moments, everything they owned turned to radioactive strangeness. But what most fascinates me is the silence, at least the lack of human generated noise. Birds still sing and squawk and wind blows but the sound of man is gone. I’d like to experience that.
The silence I’m speculating about here will be different. The guys unloading the construction equipment outside will still be yelling. The booming of a passing muffled beat (still momentarily deafening) will still slide by, leaving a breath of pot smoke in the air with their passing. But a great deal of sound will be different, creating a different world, and it’s coming day by day.
The unexpected benefits and hazards of technology breakthroughs
Electric tech promises many things, including eliminating pollution and carbon from fossil fuels, efficiencies that cascade as we close coal plants, harvest free energy from wind and the sun, and more. But silence is an unexpected benefit. It’s almost too easy to speculate about tech these days, but I can foresee phones that warn us of approaching vehicles, removing the need to ever lift our heads* and look out at the world. Perhaps we’ll divide into two species, those immersed in manmade reality and those luddites, like myself, who need to see the sky and trees. If the kid who walked into me the other day is any indicator, we’re already there.
*Interesting fact: the load we put on our neck looking down at a device is equal to having a five pound baby sitting on our head. How is your back feeling?