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IN THIS ISSUE – “There Was Angst in the Room”
UNDER THE DOME
- CA Challenges Endangered Species Act Rollback – 62nd Lawsuit v. Trump Administration
- Legislative Dems Ask Governor to Alter Ballot Initiative Process
CLIMATE CHANGE MAKES CHANGE
- Petroleum Companies Transition to Renewables
- The Chill Is Gone…California Growers Search for New Crops
- New Laws Accelerate CA Business Out-Migration
- Making Electric Vehicles Noisy…All About “Zombie Sounds”
Capital News & Notes (CN&N) harvests California legislative and regulatory insights from dozens of media and official sources for the past week, tailored to your business and advocacy interests. Please feel free to forward.
READ ALL ABOUT IT!!
FOR THE WEEK ENDING SEPT. 27, 2019
Standing in front of wetlands at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced on Wednesday a lawsuit to challenge the federal government’s move to roll back regulations that protect threatened animals and wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.
“Insects, animals, birds are disappearing,” Becerra said during a Monday press conference. “The reason so many species on this planet are endangered is because humankind has not taken a look at the science, or the data, that we are unbalancing that ecosystem.”
The lawsuit, California’s 62nd against President Donald Trump’s administration, was launched to challenge the U.S. Department of the Interior’s proposed rule announced in August that would deconstruct key elements of the law.
California is among 18 states and the City of New York in the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
The proposed rule would roll back protections for endangered species by making it easier to remove them from the list. It also raises the qualifications for uninhabited land to be deemed a “critical habitat.”
In announcing the rule, the Trump administration said it was attempting to make enforcing the Endangered Species Act more “clear, consistent and efficient.”
In the lawsuit, the attorneys general argued the administration’s move is “arbitrary and capricious” and violates the National Environmental Policy Act.
There are more than 300 endangered or threatened species in the state, according to the California Department of Justice, in addition to “tens of millions of acres of federal public lands.”
The lawsuit claims iconic national and state species that include bald eagles, California condors, grizzly bears and humpback whales would be threatened by the relaxed provisions.
The lawsuit also alleges the rule authorizes economic consideration in determining whether a habitat or species is threatened by climate change and therefore needs protection. That would pave way for detrimental development, which could disrupt important ecosystems and challenge the area’s biodiversity, Becerra said.
“What I hear is humankind, essentially, led to the disappearance of some species,” Becerrra argued. “You don’t see butterflies here anymore so let’s go ahead and develop. Well they used to be here. Let’s take a step back. What the heck did we do to stop them from being here?”
“The science doesn’t say ‘hey, they disappeared so there’s no problem.’ The science says ‘hey they’re not here, and that’s a problem.’”
The lawsuit comes amid heightened tensions between California and the White House. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Becerra announced a lawsuit to challenge Trump’s effort to revoke the state’s own carbon emission rules. In response, the federal Environmental Protection Agencythreatened to withhold the state’s highway funds.
California has sued the administration more than two dozen times for climate-related policy.
Democrats own virtually every lever of government in California, including the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, 46 of the state’s 53 congressional members, and three-fourths of state legislators.
However, they apparently want more.
For the umpteenth time, the Democrat-controlled Legislature has passed a measure clearly aimed at kneecapping the one remaining political process they don’t dominate — the power to place issues on the ballot via voter signatures on petitions.
Assembly Bill 1451, now awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature or veto, would prohibit paying initiative, referendum, or recall petition circulators on a per-signature basis, and require 10% of signatures on an initiative petition to be collected by either unpaid circulators or the employees or members of nonprofit organizations.
Its author, Assemblyman Evan Low, a Campbell Democrat, and other advocates of the bill contend that it’s a good government measure to protect voters from being fooled by unscrupulous signature-gatherers who misrepresent the issues for which they are working.
But everyone familiar with the years-long effort to enact such a law knows that it’s an attack on the use of the ballot by business, politically conservative and/or anti-tax organizations trying to bypass the Legislature and seek voter approval of their proposals or to overturn laws that the Legislature has passed, or recall politicians.
It does not prohibit people from being paid to gather signatures, but they would have to be paid salaries, not on a per-signature basis, thus changing the dynamics of the process.
As former Gov. Jerry Brown said last year in vetoing a virtually identical bill by Low, per-signature is “often the most cost-effective method for collecting the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to qualify a ballot measure.”
As governor, in fact, Brown had used per-signature petition circulators to qualify a couple of initiatives himself, including a hefty increase in state income taxes on the wealthy and the creation of a “rainy day” fund to protect the state budget.
The second major provision of AB 1451 is the requirement that 10% of signatures be collected by unpaid volunteers or the members or employees of a non-profit organization.
It’s a carveout that would help labor unions qualify their own measures for the ballot, which typically seek higher taxes, such as those that may appear on the 2020 ballot.
Since unions are technically non-profit organizations, they could hire as many signature-gatherers as they wish to collect signatures meeting the 10% requirement.
AB 1451 would not erase the initiative process, which was adopted by California in 1911 as a check on the power of a Legislature controlled by the Southern Pacific Railroad. But it would, by changing the rules of the game, disadvantage those on the right side of the political balance beam by making the process more expensive, while protecting those on the left side.
As mentioned above, it’s not the first time the game-changing maneuver has been tried.
Brown not only vetoed Low’s previous bill in 2018, but rejected similar measures in 2011 and 2016, and his predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, had done the same to bills in 2006 and 2009.
Now Newsom must decide whether to join Brown and Schwarzenegger in rejecting the perennial proposal, or finally give Democratic legislators and their union allies what they’ve yearned to gain for so many years.
It’s noteworthy that Newsom enhanced his own political career by sponsoring initiatives, including those to legalize marijuana and to impose new restrictions on guns and their owners.
From the deck of a boat in New York harbor, the chief executive of Equinor squinted toward a stretch of sea where his oil company will soon build a giant wind farm. “We are doing all we can” to fight climate change, said the executive, Eldar Saetre.
Hours later, at a hotel where Mr. Saetre and fellow oil executives were gathering to defend their industry — a major contributor to global warming — climate protesters weren’t buying it. Using lights, they projected “MAKE BIG OIL PAY” on the facade.
On Monday, as world leaders gathered at the United Nations climate summit and discussed the urgency of slashing carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, 13 of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies presented their defense at a forum across town. But most of their proposals appeared designed to perpetuate the use of oil and gas for decades to come, rather than transition quickly to cleaner options.
The companies promised a program to invest in technologies to scrub carbon dioxide from the air, although big questions remain about scaling up that technology. They also promised to cut down on leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from wells and pipes, and reaffirmed support of a tax on the burning of oil, gas and coal.
“The change that needs to take place — the trillions of dollars of investment — is only going to come from companies with resources and scale,” said Ben van Beurden, chief executive of Shell.
“This is certainly a first step. It’s a down payment. But this is a time we need a Hail Mary pass, not these modest steps,” said Andrew Logan, senior director for oil and gas at Ceres, which works with investors to address the impact of climate change on their holdings.
According to the United Nations, oil and gas production needs to fall by about 20 percent by 2030 and by almost 55 percent by 2050 in order to stop Earth’s temperature rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. That is the target set by the 2015 Paris Accord, a landmark agreement among most of the world’s nations to fight global warming.
However, new data from the financial think tank Carbon Tracker indicates that, since 2018, major oil companies have invested at least $50 billion in fossil fuel projects — like Shell’s $13 billion liquefied natural gas project in Canada and BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Equinor’s $4.3 billion deepwater oil project in Azerbaijan — that would not be financially viable if the world were to meet the 1.5-degree target.
Meanwhile, the world’s biggest energy companies last year devoted just 1 percent of their capital investment to low-carbon energy sources, a separate study from the Carbon Disclosure Project found. Equinor, among the top performers, put only about 2 percent of its investment in renewables; Exxon Mobil’s investment in renewables was one-fifth of one percent.
With prices for renewable energy like wind and solar falling faster than even the most optimistic projections, the reasoning behind backing new oil and gas exploration has started to wear thin. “You can sense there was angst in the room,” said Jules Kortenhorst, the chief executive of the energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute, who attended a Sunday cocktail party for the executives. “I think they are struggling to reconcile in their minds what that means for their industry.”
Oil companies aren’t facing only questioning from protesters. Investors are pressing them to transition more quickly to renewables, and some are divesting from oil and gas altogether.
Fossil fuel companies face lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in compensation for the damage caused by climate change. Even the Pope has weighed in, warning oil executives that energy use should not “destroy civilization.” The recent attack on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery has underscored the vulnerability of oil and gas to geopolitical shocks.
At the historic Morgan Library in New York City on Monday, the 13 oil companies announced an investment of “multi-billion dollars” in carbon capture technologies, while declining to be more specific. The idea behind this technology is to capture the carbon dioxide produced when burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is a major contributor to global warming because when it is in the atmosphere it helps trap the sun’s light.
“Our industry has gone through transitions over the decades. I don’t see it as a threat. It’s an evolution,” said Darren Woods, the Exxon chief executive. “We know from past experience that evolution is typically driven by technology,” he said.
In practice, however, major questions remain about scale, cost, speed and energy requirements of the technology. In a report last year, the European Academies Science Advisory Council said carbon removal offered only “limited realistic potential” to have a climate impact, and its authors argued that the world should not count on removal technologies to make up for a failure to reduce or eliminate emissions in the first place.
Oil companies have also made a concerted effort to plug methane leaks. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short term. But there are concerns that methane emissions are far larger than official estimates. Leaks undermine the energy industry’s argument that the burning of natural gas should be encouraged because it is cleaner than coal and can serve as a “bridge fuel” between fossil fuels and renewable energy.
The industry’s support for a carbon tax has raised hopes for a plan that could fight climate change by putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions. One proposal for the United States would set an initial tax of $40 per ton of carbon dioxide produced and would increase the price over time.
Still, that plan also envisions that climate change regulations on businesses would be rolled back, angering some climate activists.
Ahead of climate week, 200 major investors managing a combined $6.5 trillion in assets also demanded that companies stop lobbying for policies that harm the climate, both directly and through their trade groups. For example, even though major oil companies including Exxon Mobil and Shell have publicly cautioned against a move by the Trump administration to do away with methane emissions regulations, powerful industry lobbying groups still back the plan.
Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations climate chief, told the gathered chief executives that they have the power “to either put a nail in the coffin of global efforts, or be the industry to deliver the solution.”
She added, “On January 1, 2051, I don’t think you have a business unless you have achieved one of two things” she said: either a new business model that is “completely free of fossil fuels,” or a technology that makes using fossil fuels emissions-free.
Equinor might be among the closest to making an energy transformation. In recent months it has won contracts to two of the biggest wind power projects in the world — one off the shores of New York, the other in the North Sea. By 2030, it says, as much as 20 percent of its capital spending will be in renewables.
At the same time, though, Equinor intends to keep drilling for oil.
“I think young people see that we are moving far too slowly to addressing climate change,” Mr. Saetre, the company’s chief executive, said. But while renewables and carbon capture are necessary, he said, “We’re going to need oil and gas for a long time. It has to be developed. We need to find more oil and gas.”
It was a long, hot summer, like most in the San Joaquin Valley. The pistachio trees planted in orderly rows — and the growers who nurture them — are accustomed to harsh conditions. With their deep roots and tough, gnarly branches, pistachio trees are hardy, tolerant of salty soils and brutal heat waves. Some can live for centuries.
But while sweltering summers are the norm in this part of central California, there’s a new, existential threat to these trees, one that scientists warn could spell the end of the pistachio harvest: warmer winters. Many crops are facing similar threats as agricultural regions across the world experience previously unseen extremes in heat, rain and drought.
Chilly winters are critical to nut and fruit trees, particularly pistachios. To break their slumber and spread their pollen, pistachios need to spend about 850 hours, or five weeks, at temperatures below 45 degrees.
So as the San Joaquin Valley warms and its cooling fogs retreat, growers have found their orchards out of sync: Many male trees are no longer producing pollen when the females need it.
After suffering a billion-dollar loss from a recent warm winter, California pistachio growers don’t need much convincing that their livelihoods are endangered by climate change. Heeding warnings that the industry may not survive past the middle of the century, they are among the world’s earliest adapters. Scientists are wrangling and crossing genes to breed trees that can survive a warmer world, and growers are hedging their bets by planting experimental trees that need fewer chilly days.
“There’s a lot to be said about traditional knowledge. But this is new territory,” said Rebecca Carter of the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit research group that is working with growers around the world to adapt to the threats of climate change, including warmer winters, dried-up aquifers and record-breaking heat waves.
Scientists in 2013 urged “immediate adaptation” by farmers to ensure that they can feed the 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050. They warned in a study that world hunger would worsen as crop yields declined, pests and diseases increased, water demand skyrocketed and highly vulnerable crops vanished. “The whole food system needs to change,” according to the report published in the journal Science.
Coping, Dr. Carter said, would “require fundamental changes in how food is produced, how land is used, who lives where and what economic activities occur in specific areas.”
Those changes are already happening worldwide. After growing coffee for generations, farmers in parts of Costa Rica are switching to oranges. Kenyan herders, facing intense droughts, are raising camels instead of cattle. Farmers in the Midwestern United States are planting corn several weeks early so their crops can pollinate before the hotter summers.
In China’s drought-prone Fujian province, farmers who grew wheat and corn have switched to apples. In India, some farmers have replaced rice with millet, an ancient grain that thrives in parched, infertile soils. And as seawater swamps Bangladesh, some rice fields have been transformed into shrimp farms.
Yet adaptation is a gradual, decades-long process. Whether it’s California or China, transforming a society and an economy takes research, patience, guts — and money. California growers with lucrative, specialized crops have the income and savvy to test new climate-smart varieties, while in Costa Rica, Kenya and India, growers have been forced to abandon their long-held traditions and livelihoods.
“The poorest farmers, the most vulnerable farmers, are the ones who are least able to make these changes. They’re going to need help to make them,” Dr. Carter said.
A single county in the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno, produces and sells more agricultural products than 25 states, and over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in California. So if the state’s growers fail to adapt to climate change, it would cause nationwide food shortages and have a severe economic impact, according to a University of California study published last year.
“We can’t continue to do the exact same thing we are doing now,” said Katherine Jarvis-Shean, a University of California researcher who advises orchardists on how to cope with climate change. “There are a lot of solutions to the anticipated problems. We just have to get on top of them, testing them and making them available to growers.”
Among the most threatened crops in California are cherries, pistachios and walnuts, which need a large number of chilly winter days, and wine grapes, which cannot tolerate extreme heat waves.
Melons and broccoli, though, might thrive in a warming world, according to a 2017 study by the Department of Agriculture. But consumers are unlikely to rush to buy them to replace their favorite stone fruits and nuts.
“For the most part, the world gets fed by row crops,” said Pat J. Brown, an associate professor at the University of California-Davis, referring to wheat, corn and other staples. “But a lot of the stuff that makes life really worth living comes from trees. Think of the world without chocolate or wine or coffee.”
That’s the world farmers and scientists are now actively working to avoid.
For pistachios, the clear warning came in the winter of 2014-15, the warmest on record in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Historically, orchards there, about 125 miles north of Los Angeles, enjoy cool, rainy winters and dense fog. But statewide, average temperatures have increased more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century.
In particular, the valley’s wintertime lows have risen four times faster than its summertime highs. Making matters worse, the famous Tule fogs that cool the valley have dissipated by 46 percent.
In the winter of 2014-15, the southern valley experienced only about half the chill hours that the pistachios needed and not a single day of fog. The industry had its lowest yield in more than 20 years.
Cherries had a similar dismal year in 2014. Production dipped 63 percent, to the smallest crop since 1998. Then, last winter, a cold snap killed walnut trees up and down the valley.
“Walnut growers had never seen anything like it,” said Dr. Brown, who breeds walnuts and pistachios. “In this case, it didn’t just destroy a year’s crop. It killed mature trees.”
Farmers couldn’t help but be alarmed by the wild temperature swings. “Farming in general is like gambling in Vegas,” said Rob Yraceburu, the president of Wonderful Orchards, the largest producer of pistachios in the United States. “We’ve always had uncertainty. But now there’s even more uncertainty.”
The first warnings came in 2009, when a team of scientists reported that chilling hours in some parts of California had already dropped by 30 percent between 1950 and 2000, and that the decrease would reach 80 percent by the end of this century.
“For some crops, production might no longer be possible,” the scientists wrote. “Areas where safe winter chill exists for growing walnuts, pistachios, peaches, apricots, plums and cherries are likely to almost completely disappear by the end of the 21st century.”
Expanding their scope, the scientists warned that all growing regions — the southeastern United States, South America, Africa, China, Australia — “will experience severe declines in safe winter chill.”
After the dismal 2015 harvest, California growers decided that they needed pistachio trees designed for warmer winters. But it takes some 20 years to breed, test, grow and harvest a new variety of nut tree, so experiments undertaken now won’t have quick results.
“We have a saying: You don’t plant pistachios for yourself, you plant them for your children and your grandchildren,” said Bob Klein, manager of the California Pistachio Research Board. “Now perhaps it’s not so much for your kids and your grandchildren” as the future climate has become so uncertain, he said.
Wonderful Orchards took the stopgap step of planting some experimental male trees that shed pollen at various times, hoping their cycles would match more females.
The company is still waiting to see if any of its efforts will work.
“It’s a challenge for all permanent crops, because it takes so long,” Mr. Yraceburu said. “Others like carrots or lettuce are 90-day or 120-day crops, so you can try something and know right away if it works. For trees, you don’t even get any results until four to eight years down the road. You don’t know if your experiment works for a long time.”
For some crops, scientists are going back to their origins, searching, for instance, for old varieties of nuts grown in the Middle East. “All of the things we grow in California have a wild relative or a variety on the market elsewhere that does O.K. with warmer winters,” Dr. Jarvis-Shean said.
The Agriculture Department has repositories that store genetic material from every type of tree on earth. Dan Parfitt, a now-retired University of California-Davis plant geneticist, started breeding pistachios using tissue from those repositories more than 30 years ago in an effort to help growers economize their harvest.
As the climate changed, Dr. Parfitt got the idea to plant a few hundred of the trees in the California desert. “The Coachella Valley is the closest to the warmer winters and drier conditions that we will see in the San Joaquin Valley in 20 to 30 years,” he said.
These new breeds go by an array of odd names: Gumdrop, Tejon, Lost Hills, Famoso. Many growers have already planted some in their orchards. Dr. Parfitt is confident that the pistachios of the future will be dominated by trees bred for climate change.
A similar adaptation effort is underway in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, where coffee has been grown for two centuries. But instead of waiting for climate-smart beans, Javier Zeledón Jimenez is growing something else.
About 20 years ago, as coffee was becoming less profitable, he switched to oranges, a crop that also happens to cope better with dry conditions. He is now doing much better financially, and other Guanacaste growers, seeing his success, have joined him.
The unpredictability of climate change is raising the cost of harvesting coffee just as prices for the product are dropping, said Carlos Luis Vásquez Hernández, the general manager of Coope Pilangosta, a coffee cooperative in Guanacaste. As a result, he said, about 40 percent of the coffee farmers in his co-op have switched to oranges.
Coffee is temperature sensitive; highs and lows must fall within a certain range, and it needs a long dry period, then a gradual start to the rainy season, to thrive. Rising temperatures and erratic shifts in rainfall have devastated Guanacaste’s coffee growers. Almost half the crop was lost in the 2015-16 season because of drought, Mr. Vásquez Hernández said.
“With climate change, something we’ve heard over and over from farmers is that the climate is becoming really irregular and unpredictable,” said Stefanie Tye of the World Resources Institute, who is advising Costa Rican growers. “It’s incredibly difficult to be a coffee producer right now. A lot of the farmers are heavily in debt.”
It will get worse. By 2050, Costa Rica’s average temperatures are projected to rise 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit, rendering some regions incapable of growing Arabica beans. That will mean fundamental changes to a culture that has had a rich history of coffee growing.
Circa of America got its start more than a half-century ago, during San Francisco’s Hippie heyday, when Ronaldo Cianciarulo began making and selling leather belts out of his van in the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
During several changes of ownership and names, it continued to make belts in a factory in San Francisco’s Bayview District, the largest manufacturing facility remaining in the city.
However, earlier this month, Circa announced that it was closing its plant, laying off 92 employees and moving its headquarters to Atlanta.
“Due to changing economic conditions in the city and globally as well as a shifting customer base, Circa of America has made the business decision to move,” a Circa spokeswoman told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Circa had reached its tipping point, when the disadvantages of operating in San Francisco outweighed the advantages.
A two-hour drive to the southeast, Jim deMartini had already reached his tipping point.
A prominent farmer and Stanislaus County supervisor, deMartini announced in July that he was not only giving up his political position, but had sold his 1,100 acres of farmland and was moving to Nevada. Not for business reasons. “I’ve had it with California,” deMartini said.
Circa apparently isn’t alone. Joseph Vranich, who helps businesses relocate, has published a report, entitled “Why Companies Leave California,” claiming that between 2008 and 2016, “at least 13,000 companies moved out of state during that nine-year period.”
Vranich says high taxes and increasingly onerous regulatory laws are the major reasons for business departures.
DeMartini isn’t alone either. California routinely loses more people to other states than it gains, with Texas the No. 1 destination of ex-Californians. There are numerous anecdotal reports of wealthy people, such as deMartini, quietly opting to relocate to no- or low-tax states such as Nevada and Texas as their tax burdens increase.
The larger question is whether California as a whole could reach a tipping point when high taxes, regulation, soaring housing, utility and fuel costs, choking traffic congestion, disease-ridden encampments of the homeless and other negative factors overwhelm the positives of living and doing business here and the state begins to experience economic and social erosion.
We have seen tipping points in California before, both positive and negative.
We saw the San Francisco Bay Area explode as a generator of jobs and wealth when technical innovation, venture capital and entrepreneurial spirit combined in just the right proportions.
We saw Los Angeles County implode when the end of the Cold War ravaged its aerospace industry and more than a million people fled the region, leaving it with the worst poverty in a state with the nation’s worst poverty.
What might be California’s tipping point? Could it be one or more of the bills just passed in the Legislature?
Could it be Assembly Bill 5, which would, by codifying a state Supreme Court decision, force businesses to place more workers on their payrolls, rather than treat them as contractors?
Could it be Assembly Bill 1482, which imposes limits on rents in older apartment houses?
Or could it be one of the measures that voters might face next year to raise property taxes on commercial real estate or boost income taxes on the highest income Californians?
We may not be there yet, but logic — and history — tell us that there is always a tipping point. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is one obvious reminder.
More to the point, we should remember that Detroit, the booming Silicon Valley of its time, arrogantly assumed that its prosperity was impregnable, and then stumbled into a socioeconomic abyss.
Two years ago, Nissan hired the studio Man Made Music for what seemed like a straightforward task: Design a sound that its quiet electric vehicles could play to announce themselves on the road.
The automaker wasn’t just splurging on a flashy feature. It was preparing for a federal regulation set to take effect next year that would require all hybrid and electric vehicles, which are quieter than their gas-guzzling ancestors, to emit noise at certain speeds for pedestrian safety.
This week, the agency that oversees the rule, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, proposed changing it to let automakers offer drivers a suite of sounds. For now, though, Nissan plans to include just one with its electric Leaf next year: “Canto,” a resonant hum created by Man Made Music whose pitch rises as the car accelerates.
Designing such sounds is a complex undertaking, according to Joel Beckerman, the founder of Man Made Music. With Canto, the team had to address safety and maintain a brand identity, all in a three-second loop that is distinctive yet doesn’t stand out.
“If we do our job in this kind of situation, then you don’t notice what we did at all,” Mr. Beckerman said. “It just becomes natural, it’s just a part of your life, it’s a part of your environment. When you get it wrong, that’s when people notice.”
The team at Man Made Music, which is used to developing audio for TV, movies and radio, spent nearly half of 2017 working on the sound, a layering of sampled wind and string instruments, and analog and digital synth sounds.
“A surprising element we found ourselves relying on were pure ‘sine waves’ from analog synthesizers,” Danni Venne, the studio’s creative director on the Nissan project, said in an email. “We also found that adding bits of ‘white noise’ to the mix gave us a lot of control to shape and color the sound. It’s almost like we built ‘Canto’ from fundamental building blocks of sound.”
While the advent of quieter hybrid and electric vehicles presents an opportunity to build such sounds from scratch, there is a long history of sound design in the automotive industry. Muscle cars have their distinctive throaty growl. Harley Davidson motorcycles have that syncopated “potato-potato-potato” chug. (That’s really what they’ve called it.)
There is also a history of maintaining zombie sounds long after technology has made them obsolete. On smartphones, for example, the actions of locking the device or taking photos are often accompanied by the noises of a mechanical lock or camera shutter. In financial apps, transactions are often accompanied by the sound of jingling coins or a cash register.
In the case of hybrid and electric vehicles, though, the need for sound is about more than the user experience: It’s about safety. About a decade ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that hybrid electric vehicles were 35 percent more likely than those with internal combustion engines to be involved in a pedestrian accident. Hybrids were also 57 percent more likely to be involved in accidents involving bicycles.
In 2010, Congress passed a law to enhance pedestrian safety, instructing the agency to craft a rule mandating that hybrid and electric vehicles emit noise. The rule was finalized in 2016 and requires that such noises be produced when the car is driving at speeds up to 30 kilometers per hour. Above that, tire, wind and other noises were warning enough, it deemed. The move was celebrated by the blind community.
Automakers requested a few changes, though, including allowing owners to choose from a range of sounds rather than just one. On Tuesday, the agency proposed making that tweak, and said that it would accept input on the move until November.
Regulators around the world have been imposing or weighing such requirements. In the European Union, for example, one such rule just took effect in July.
As a result, major carmakers have been working on crafting sounds to meet those requirements. Jaguar, for example, said it worked for four years on the futuristic noise for its I-PACE SUV. For the 2020 model of the Chevrolet Bolt, General Motors designed the vehicle’s sound in-house, using a quiet electric whirring as a starting point, according to Todd Bruder, the engineer who led development of the sound.
“It wants to be purposeful, it wants to be pleasing, but also have the ability to warn people that there’s something coming,” he said.