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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Sneaky Hybrids

Examples of unintended consequences and countervailing risks abound in environmental policy: MTBE, a fuel additive initially adopted to reduce tailpipe emissions and meet Clean Air Act requirements, is now one of the most pervasive groundwater contaminants in the United States; prompted by California’s Proposition 65, Gillette removed TCE (a chemical listed as a “known carcinogen” by the State) from Liquid Paper only to substitute 1,1,1-trichloroethane (“TCA”) (unlisted by the State, but perhaps even more dangerous than TCE); advances in home energy efficiency are offset by ever-larger homes and advances in fuel economy are offset by increases in vehicle miles traveled. One of the more unusual iterations of this frustrating, but common, phenomenon may be the complaint (primarily from the blind community) that hybrid vehicles pose a danger to pedestrians because hybrid systems are too quiet, see here for the National Federation of the Blind advocacy page.

From a purely environmental perspective, hybrids, including their maligned quietness, are a slam dunk. Noise pollution is widely recognized as imposing negative impacts on the human environment in the context of environmental impact review (indeed, environmental review documents frequently estimate the decibel contribution of proposed projects to noise levels in surrounding neighborhoods). And, of course, hybrids reduce gas consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

At present, advocacy groups concerned about the threat hybrids pose to pedestrians seem to be focusing on legislative, administrative, and voluntary mechanisms to achieve the manufacture and/or retrofit of hybrids with noisemakers. The National Federal of the Blind, for example, states in “Resolution 2006-05 Regarding Quiet Cars”:

BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this seventh day of July, 2006, in the City of Dallas, Texas, that this organization declare that the only solution to the quiet car emergency is a continuous sound emitted by the vehicle itself; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization raise an alarm with car manufacturers, federal executive agencies, and the United States Congress about this emergency and demand that they act to ensure the safe and free travel of the blind and all other pedestrians.

However, the publicity about the lawsuit brought by the American Council of the Blind against the Department of the Treasury relating to currency design, American Council of the Blind v. Paulson, leads me to wonder (and I welcome comment) -- are there any legal hooks (beyond administrative action, such as petitioning for rulemaking under, for example, an existing vehicle safety statute or individual tort suits by pedestrians) that advocates might use to force the inclusion of noisemaking devices in hybrids? (Putting aside, for now, the normative question of whether such noisemaking devices are desirable.)

Here’s one somewhat unusual idea in the spirit of brainstorming. Many localities, states and the federal government have fleet procurement rules that require the purchase and use of hybrid vehicles by local, state or federal agencies (respectively). I’m not familiar enough with the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act to know whether that kind of government action provides even an arguable basis for a claim. And presumably any remedy would be limited to vehicles in the government fleet. But it is perhaps at least worth noting that there is direct government involvement of a sort when it comes to sneaky hybrids and maybe, therefore, another Paulson-style lawsuit lurking.

Posted by Katrina Kuh on June 4, 2008 at 07:28 AM | Permalink


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California, ever the front runner, has sent just such a bill to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger:

Calif. says green cars need more noise pollution

From NPR

Posted by: Joshua Fershee | Aug 20, 2008 3:10:48 PM

General public safety laws likely could be drafted to require that an owner of a hybrid or other “quiet” vehicle add some form of noise maker. For example, many states have varying rules
regarding tinted windows. Some states limit the degree of tint, others don’t allow mirrored tint, and some only allowed tinted windows behind the front seat windows. Similarly, many states require the use of chains and/or snow tires in certain places or at certain times of the year. This is for the safety of both the driver and other motorists. As such, I would think that states could require some sort of after-market solution (putting the onus on the vehicle owner), even if they can’t require the manufacturer to install a noise maker on all hybrid vehicles.

Posted by: Joshua Fershee | Jun 6, 2008 2:57:26 PM

Dear Jonathan,
I had a feeling someone might raise the hybrid's life cycle carbon footprint. I decided not to flag it in the spirit of comparing apples to apples (new cars to new cars) and, in part, because I have some doubts about the current rigor of life cycle methodologies. To complicate matters further, there's also the issue of the "clunker" effect -- as tailpipe emission standards ratchet up, older cars on the road continue to emit freely at prior levels. Of course, your point raises another type of unintended consequence that is endemic in the context of reducing GHG emissions, namely that reductions in end product carbon dioxide emissions can be easily offset by more carbon intensive manufacturing processes, changes in user behavior, etc.
K. Kuh

Posted by: Katrina Kuh | Jun 4, 2008 11:10:57 AM

Prof. Kuh,

You note:

From a purely environmental perspective, hybrids, including their maligned quietness, are a slam dunk....[a]nd, of course, hybrids reduce gas consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

Wired magazine last months notes:

Pound for pound, making a Prius contributes more carbon to the atmosphere than making a Hummer, largely due to the environmental cost of the 30 pounds of nickel in the hybrid's battery. Of course, the hybrid quickly erases that carbon deficit on the road, thanks to its vastly superior fuel economy.....A [less fuel-costly] used car, on the other hand, starts with a significant advantage: The first owner has already paid off its carbon debt. Buy a decade-old Toyota Tercel, which gets a respectable 35 mpg, and the Prius will have to drive 100,000 miles to catch up.

Your thoughts?

Posted by: Jonathan | Jun 4, 2008 8:02:20 AM

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