A Curious Coincidence related to UCS "Greenest Automaker" Analysis

July 18, 2014 | World Listening Day 2014 | In June, the Union of Concerned Scientists ranked the top eight automakers over the past fifteen years in an online analysis and accompanying report, placing Hyundai-Kia in the top spot, followed by Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. UCS ranks Chrysler as the "least green" automaker, followed by General Motors, Ford, and Volkswagen, basing environmental rankings on average emissions.

It is impossible not to notice that the top four automakers in UCS's rankings are the most environmentally friendly when it comes to the soundscape, while the bottom four are the least environmentally friendly, continuing to use horn sounds to signify lock status - in some cases, particularly with GM and Ford - to add more horn honking alerts, as with electric charging and alerts related to leaving a car that is running.

The automakers positioned at the top of UCS's ranking are somewhat different in our ranking, but there is a significant similarity:

Toyota transitioned all of its cars from horn-based lock alerts more than a decade ago, and Toyota uses silent visual smartphone "car finding" technology.

Honda is in the process of transitioning horn-based lock alerts to an electronic tone and does not currently offer "car finding" technology.

Nissan is in the process of transitioning horn-based lock alerts to an electronic tone and does not currently offer "car finding" technology (but Nissan uses horn sounds for "tire alert" and electric charge).

Hyundai is in the process of transitioning horn-based lock alerts to an electronic tone, but uses a horn sound with its "car finding" smartphone app.

Kia added an electronic tone with the first press of the key fob, but unfortunately decided to keep the horn sound with the second press of the key fob ("in case you forget after you've walked away from the car"). However, Kia offers silent "car finding" smartphone technology.

It is difficult to rank the four "least green" of the "eight" automakers cited in the UCS study in terms of contributing to community noise with their use of horn honking.

US and Canadian Sales 2004 through YTD 2014
General Motors Ford and Lincoln Chrysler Group Volkswagen Group
36,972,234 27,307,804 20,394,648 4,842,713

Some might rank the four least acoustically green based on total sales - with more cars on the road, chances are higher that owners of the four groups using horn sounds for locking and other mundane, non-emergency functions will contribute more noise to residential communities and other settings. With only 5% of total sales, and with Audi using a non-horn based lock alert sound (although Audi's "chirp" is arguably grating) further reducing Volkswagen's contribution, the Volkswagen Group might be ranked as acoustically greenest among the bottom four.

Setting sales data aside, General Motors still places as the least acoustically green among the top "eight" automakers cited in the UCS report, with Ford a close second. Chrysler vehicles contribute significantly to non-emergency horn-based alerts, including locking, remote start, and tamper alert. But Ford and General Motors seem to elicit the most complaints by their own customers as the two automakers continue to adopt new non-emergency horn-based alerts, leaving owners feeling downright henpecked by horn-based reminders in multiple situations. But with GM's adoption of Nissan's "tire alert" honking and a variety of horn honks related to the Volt, GM seems to lag furthest behind the UCS list's other automakers in that bottom position, ignoring the capability of its own innovative silent technology that could replace all non-emergency use of horn sounds, and could also replace use of audible car alarms and "panic alarm."

The Union of Concerned Scientists' analysis was based on one measurement of environmental friendliness. Adding measures certainly complicates any analysis, but in this case looking at measures of noise pollution would do little to change the overall rankings if an operationalized empirical calculation of noise as a measure of "environmental friendliness" were added to the analysis. The Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club, the David Suzuki Foundation, Transportation Alternatives, and most - possibly all - other organizations that regularly offer opinions on the auto industry and its measures of environmental friendliness, sustainability, and corporate responsibility prove time and again that noise is "the neglected green issue of our day."

Consumer Reports and other publications that do report on noise focus on cabin noise, engine noise, and tire and wheel bearing noise. NHTSA spent a great deal of time and money attempting to address noise added to EV and hybrid vehicles (to what end?) but has never addressed horn-based acoustic alerts, panic alarm, car alarms, and other contributors to environmental noise associated with stationary cars.

It is worth noting that certain automakers seem to have more awareness and concern about environmental noise and its impact on communities than all of the environmental, transportation, livable streets, and regulatory groups, and most publications in every medium, put together. In mainstream automotive and environmental media, only The Detroit Bureau and Jim Motavalli have ever written about this particular noise issue in recent years. Before that, the first and possibly only in-depth coverage of this community noise issue appeared in the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily almost five years ago.

(Close browser to return to Green Car Integrity)