Cutting through the noise: how to regulate for subjective issues

by Megan Stagman on 06 Aug 2019

In recent years, the regulation of policy areas like privacy, genetically modified foods and pollution has shown that different countries can take wildly divergent approaches. The regulation of noise is a similarly subjective issue of great relevance to the emerging tech of electric vehicles and drones, in particular.

A lack of harmonisation when regulating subjective issues is not at all surprising given the unique circumstances that each government operates in. Every concoction of subjective cultural views, established best practice, political priorities and even geographic context makes for diverse regulatory outcomes.

Policies relating to the regulation of noise are illustrative of the problem. As well as technical areas such as settling on specific methodologies of noise testing, policymakers and manufacturers are being forced to consider a wide range of highly subjective factors including sensitivity to noise, personal preference of certain sound types, and perceptions of safety and change. 

Varying levels of sensitivity

Historically, the primary objective when it comes to noise policy has been reduction – urban noise was prioritised by the European Commission as a pressing environmental problem that needed tackling back in 1993. In this vein, numerous technologies have therefore been regulated to become quieter and less disruptive, ranging from lawn mowers to wind turbines.

This principle continues to apply to many of 2019’s emerging technologies, including drones. But while, for example, the European Commission has recently adopted new legislation to set maximum noise levels for manufactured drones in what is known as the Open category of operations, it also acknowledges that regulators in individual Members States will need to “take into account the operating conditions and various specific characteristics… such as the population density” when determining maximum noise levels of their own. For what are known as Specific category drone operations, it therefore mandates only that operations are “flown in a manner that minimises nuisance to people and animals”. This leaves such regulation highly subjective and open to broad interpretation.

In other parts of the world, the fact that some governments are being criticised for playing ‘catch up’ in regulating drone noise makes clear another influencing (and related) factor that differs according to country and region: public acceptance. Shaped by other issues such as levels of background noise and cultural preferences, a temperature check on the receptiveness of the general public to the noise of a new technology certainly gives an indication as to the direction that regulators may lean.

Demonstrative of this is the fact that the Australian Federal Government has recently announced that it will be conducting a formal review into drone noise, taking into account “the community noise impact of drone operations”. Even with a survey of “developments overseas” included in this review, it is difficult to foresee a harmonised approach across different countries being feasible. Every country will have slightly differing views in terms of where they draw the line in terms of acceptable noise impact, and how they weigh up costs and benefits of the new technology.

Therefore, as drone operations become increasingly commonplace and what were once futuristic notions of drone deliveries become realised, it is becoming clear that the noise that they emit is one of the key regulatory battlegrounds which will result in a patchwork of differing laws across the world. It follows that those countries with higher tolerance for noise will be the most receptive to the introduction of such technology and thus have the most relaxed regulations.

How to find consensus on what sounds are pleasant

While drones are a case in point of noise policy generally leaning towards reduction, there have also been new developments in the opposite direction when it comes to technology like electric vehicles.

The first tangible outcomes of this have emerged in the last couple of months, in particular with new EU regulations coming into force that mandate that low-emission and otherwise almost silent electric vehicles must be fitted with a noise-emitting device. This ‘acoustic vehicle alert system’ (or AVAS) will need to sound when the vehicle is reversing or travelling below 12mph to alert pedestrians and cyclists.

Although some have witheringly compared this development to the Locomotive Act in 1865 that demanded cars were led by pedestrians waving a red flag to warn bystanders of its approach, there has generally been agreement that the requirement in this context to increase noise levels, rather than reduce them, is a positive step. However, since the regulations stop short of specific requirements on what precisely this should sound like, different manufacturers and national Member States are approaching its implementation very differently based on subjective preferences for certain sounds.

For example, while manufacturers are already vying for the most attention-grabbing hums, swishes and jangles to add the competitive edge to their products (Mercedes-AMG is collaborating with Linkin Park to come up with their unique sound, and BMW is hiring Hans Zimmer for theirs), members of the public have already begun to complain about some sounds “hitting the wrong note”. In response to recent proposals put forward by Transport for London for the sound their electric buses will emit, those consulted reported back that many of the sounds were “ghastly” and in fact that it was only the sound that most resembled a diesel engine that was an acceptable option “because it wasn’t so irritating”.

In addition to the challenge of creating sounds that are deemed pleasing to the ear (which is unlikely to result in one unanimously agreed upon answer), regulators will also need to cater to volume limits according to the geographical context – for the same reasons as explained by the European Commission in their drone regulations. While the EU’s requirement for an AVAS sets a minimum sound level of 56dB, there remain grave concerns about whether the same level of safety would be achieved by a single volume level applied equally to vehicles in central London as well as rural Sweden.

Cultural attitudes to safety and change

Finally, because culture differs, so too do attitudes towards issues like safety or receptiveness to change, and this has implications for the form that regulation takes.

On the one hand, certain cultures may feel that safety alarms like AVAS to protect pedestrians and cyclists are excessive, and cancel out the solutions that electric vehicles could otherwise offer in terms of reducing noise pollution. Meanwhile, others feel that the new regulations have still not gone far enough to mitigate risk. A number of academic studies have indicated that there are differences in terms of risk perception between different countries, which one could argue has a knock on effect in terms of what safety mechanisms (like alarms) are deemed necessary.

Equally, cultural variance is one of the factors that determines public and policymakers’ receptiveness to change. With certain countries prioritising innovation and technological change more than others, there is not a uniform way in which we can expect people to respond to change from what they were previously used to – nor a uniform way in which people respond to new noises.

Conclusions to be drawn

The example of incoming noise regulations related to emerging transport technologies makes clear that technology companies have their work cut out for them in deciphering which way a country’s regulation will lean. There is no one size fits all approach, especially when it comes to regulating on subjective issues.

In this context of sometimes haphazard and non-harmonised rule-making, a public affairs agency like Inline Policy can provide the expertise to identify both opportunities and risks. If you would like to speak to someone getting an insight into the future direction of travel for your particular policy area, you can get in touch with us here.

Topics: Electric vehicles, Transport, Aviation, Mobility, Drones, Megan Stagman

Megan Stagman

Written by Megan Stagman

Megan provides political analysis and monitoring to emerging technology clients, with a focus on drones and data.

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