A wonderful byproduct of internal combustion engines is the chest-massaging rumble they can provide. Although increasingly diminished by legislation, the sound levels are still sufficient to warn pedestrians of a vehicle’s presence. However, electric vehicles pose a problem. At low speeds, they are not noisy enough to alert pedestrians.
The solution, of course, is legislation. Thus electric vehicles are required to have a Pedestrian Warning System (PWS). Tesla complied by equipping its cars with an external speaker to play a warning noise. But some Tesla models also provide a feature called Boombox. It lets customers customize the sounds played over the external speaker. Not so fast, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says. It says that custom sounds can obscure audible warning sounds.
According to the NHTSA, “While Boombox and the pedestrian alert sound are mutually exclusive sounds, sounds emitted using Boombox could be construed to obscure or prevent the PWS from complying.” NHTSA noted that it is not aware of any crashes or injuries due to Boombox.
I need to wrap my mind around that. On one hand, the NHTSA is correct; a Metallica song could obscure a warning noise. On the other hand, if I heard a Metallica song speeding toward me, I would probably run away. Using the same logic, Tesla argued that Boombox could “enhance the conspicuity of the vehicle to pedestrians.” That being said, Tesla also immediately agreed to pull the plug on its Boombox feature. I can see both sides of the argument, although I do strongly appreciate any corporate attorney who has the lexiconical cojones to use the word “conspicuity.”
In any case, Tesla is recalling some 579,000 vehicles. “Recalling” is more of a regulatory term than an actual description. In practice, Tesla can fix the problem with an over-the-air software update that will disable Boombox when the vehicle is in drive, reverse, or neutral. In case you own a Tesla, note that the recall affects 2020 through 2022 Tesla Model X, S, and Y vehicles, as well as 2017 through 2022 Model 3s. In his inimitable style, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted, “The fun police made us do it (sigh).”
Frankly, if Tesla really wanted to warn pedestrians, they would pipe the TeslaMic’s karaoke vocals to the external speakers. All pedestrians, as well as most nearby vehicles, would head for the hills. Or, Tesla could just install a gasoline engine with a busted muffler.
PS: In a relatively unrelated note, Mr. Musk donated about $5.7 billion in Tesla shares to charity last year. Apparently the NHTSA was not impressed.