Friday, 9 March 2007

Spoilsports undermine the silent motorbike

Ask people what the two worst things are about road transport and they’ll probably tell you that they are noise and pollution. We have turned our cities into loud, dirty places, spitting climate-changing gasses into the atmosphere while the air below causes respiratory diseases among our children. A few loons derive from this a loathing for modern society and a desire to return to a more Arcadian existence. The saner elements accept this as the grudging price of progress and hope that a combination of moderation (aka. conservation) and innovation can make the future brighter. Or even, brighter still.

So one would have thought that the development of a silent, pollution-free vehicle would be greeted with universal joy. The bicycle is such a device, but is not suitable for all – those with a long commute or no showers at their destination, for example. It is also reviled by drivers and pedestrians alike. But if a motorised vehicle could be made both whisper-quiet and carbon neutral, that would be a miracle of modern science, wouldn’t it?

Apparently, not.

The hydrogen powered motorcycle is now a reality. It is a matter of opinion whether it looks sleek and shiny like a freshly-pressed cyberman, or plastic and boxy like a glorified Sinclair C5, but the designers of the Emissions Neutral Vehicle or ENV bike claim it has the running noise of a PC and produces waste that is drinkable. It’s a miracle of modern science.

Unless you are a killjoy. So when it was launched last year, the killjoys crawled out of the woodwork. The bike, they complained, was too quiet. It will confuse unsuspecting motorists and pedestrians who are – they fear – too stupid to stop and look, as well as listen. So instead it is being suggested that the ENVs be fitted with a false engine noise, a synthesised “vroom” to alert other people that it is comingh.

This has disturbing echoes the Locomotives on the Highway Act that required men with red flags walk in front of every motor car. That piece of meddling legislation was eventually repealed once it was realised that both drivers and other road users could be trusted to use the road responsibly, and a few accidents could not be allowed to stymie progress.

Similarly, adding an unnecessary whine to the silent motorbike would be as counter-productive as adding smoke to the exhaust to make a visible plume. The potential benefits to quality of life from reducing the high levels of noise in busy urban areas is incalculable. The ENV may not itself be the vehicle of the future, but it may prove to be the antecedent of generations of silent, pollution-free vehicles that will transform our cities into cleaner, quieter but still lively places to live.

If you listen very carefully, you can hear the future.


Tony Ferguson said...

Take your point but sadly I am one of those luddites who likes a Harley to sound like well er like a Harley!

Tom Papworth said...

Oh, I agree. But I don't want a Harley to sound like it's had an MP3 player build in to make Harley noises.

The ENV is (as Clarkson would undoubtedly agree) a different kind of vehicle. It should be allowed to sound different.

After all, a motorbike that could only max. 50mph wouldn't sound much like a Harley either! It would sound like somebody was squeezing a rat :oD