Wednesday, April 16, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Per Capita: Silent cars pose risks to bicyclists, pedestrians

JohnMott-SmithW

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From page A5 | February 20, 2014 | 2 Comments

Here are a few “short stories” about aspects of climate change, greenhouse gases, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE: For several years, I commuted to my job in Sacramento on a bike. It was a great way to wake up in the morning (not so great in the darkness of winter) and get mentally organized for the work of the day. And it was a great way to work off the stress of the day on the way home (except in the dark of winter). I loved it, whether it was raining or 105 degrees. The weather was not an issue.

What was an issue, and probably still is (I don’t commute anymore) was suddenly finding an electric vehicle next to you on the bike path on the causeway. It was startling; you couldn’t hear them coming. Hearing is as important as seeing when you are on a bike, and this trained me to never take silence for granted.

Even today, if I don’t hear a car behind me I still make sure to look before turning or crossing streets. This is especially important in Davis, with all of its electric and hybrid vehicles.

The estimates are that there may be half a million electric vehicles in the United States by 2030, and, as currently constructed, these vehicles will be mostly silent at speeds up to about 25 miles per hour, after which noise from the tires on the roadway is pretty audible.

This is becoming a big issue for automakers as they look toward the future. What would be their liability, for example, if a person who is blind, hearing no oncoming traffic, stepped into an intersection and was hit by a car? What would be the city’s liability for not making each intersection accessible to people who are blind? It may be a remote problem now, but car manufacturers around the globe are taking a serious look at it.

And their response? Most are planning on, or are already, installing “synthetic motor sounds” into electric vehicles. Vroom, vroom. Some even let you pick the sound you want, like a ring tone on your phone. In any case, it acts like a bell on a bicycle that announces the bike’s presence to pedestrians.

“JURASSIC PARK” REVISITED: The fantasy of that movie was engaging, and certainly sparked a conversation about the potential to bring back to life creatures that had gone extinct. My hope, as a birder, would be recovering the ivory-billed woodpecker. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bringing back woolly mammoths and other creatures may be beyond the reach of current science, but, as reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the rate at which glaciers around the world are melting is exposing plant species that have not been seen for hundreds of years, and scientists have successfully regenerated viable plants from supposedly “dead” materials that had been buried beneath these glaciers.

This was not a feat of genetic engineering; it was the awesome beauty and power of dormancy, with life from some species being resuscitated after hibernation for nearly half a millennium. So, I suppose, this is some counter-balance to the current rate at which we are extincting (is that a word?) species.

GOOD JOB, EVERYONE: The government reports that energy usage per household is declining. This is pretty amazing considering that the size of an average home has increased dramatically, and with it the need to heat, light and cool that larger space.

Still, I like the way the Associated Press reported this factoid: “The average amount of electricity consumed in U.S. homes has fallen to levels last seen more than a decade ago, back when the smartest device in people’s pockets was a Palm Pilot and anyone talking about a tablet was probably an archeologist or a preacher.”

It truly is amazing to consider that the iPhone, introduced about a decade ago, and the ensuing explosion of gadgets, “apps” (itself not a word 10 years ago) and electricity-consuming devices could be offset by people basically using less electricity in their daily lives. This is reason for hope. Of course, even though electricity use per household is declining, we have more households. This is reason for doubling down on energy efficiency.

WHAT HAPPENS AT “BURNING MAN” DOESN’T HAVE TO STAY THERE: What do Tesla Motors (home of, among other things, the electric sports car) and SolarCity (installer of solar panels for homes and businesses) have in common? Their CEOs are related and came up with a brilliant idea at this weeklong bacchanal in Nevada’s desert.

Somewhere in the midst of all the music and goings-on they figured, “Hey, you make batteries and I make solar systems. Maybe we should work together.” The result is a refrigerator-size battery that has been installed in 500 test homes. The battery stores electricity produced by solar panels and is smart enough to know when it is better for the homeowner to draw down power from the battery than to pay for the electricity from the utility.

SolarCity’s goal is to include a storage system with every solar system they sell. No price information is available yet.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column publishes on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to johnmottsmith@comcast.net.

John Mott-Smith

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Discussion | 2 comments

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 19, 2014 - 8:04 pm

    A rear view mirror does not completely solve the silent vehicle problem. However, it helps a lot. I recommend every bicyclist use a rear-view mirror all the time. If you have Shimano breaks, you can buy (for about $15) a very good rear view mirror which attaches under where the left break connects to your handlebar. Another good alternative is a rear-view mirror which attaches to the left temple of your sunglasses (or clear glasses at night).

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  • B. CarfreeFebruary 20, 2014 - 9:01 pm

    One has to be pretty oblivious to what's going on to not hear an electric vehicle. The combination of the air friction and tire noise is quite audible at speeds above ten miles per hour. Since any reasonably fit person can ride a bike much faster than ten miles per hour, a cyclist really shouldn't be surprised when a coal-powered car overtakes him/her. When will the myth of the silent car die? It's as bad as the one about the cyclists who "came from out of nowhere". I don't understand the author's dislike of riding in the dark. Many of my most memorable and enjoyable commutes between Davis and Sac were at 0400. The lightning strikes east of Sac while riding under the causeway were truly beautiful. In the years since the old bike path was removed, lighting technology has come along to the point that one can easily see all road hazards and be more visible to inattentive motorists than one is during daylight hours. Add in the relatively smog-free winter air, and it's a win all around.

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