There were a couple of news stories this week concerning the efforts of auto manufacturers seeking to add artificial sound to electric and hybrid cars. The reason is that blind persons, pedestrians and others (for instance bicyclers like me) can't hear electric or hybrid cars approaching at low speeds. There is a bill making its way through the US Congress, called H.R.5734 - Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2008, which ...

"... directs the Secretary of Transportation to study and report to Congress on the minimum level of sound that is necessary to be emitted from a motor vehicle, or some other method, to alert blind and other pedestrians of the presence of operating motor vehicles while traveling."

Once the bill passes, the results/recommendations need to be reported back to Congress within two years.

The US is slow in comparison to Japan in addressing this issue. The  Japanese Federation of the Blind, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, and Japan’s transportation ministry have already met twice to discuss the issue, and are going to present recommendations by the end of the year on how sounds should be emitted by electric, hybrid and other vehicles that are becoming "too quiet." The only constraint is that the sound can't be too close to a car horn.

Bloomberg News ran this article earlier this week about Nissan engineers coming up with for its hybrid/electric cars "a high-pitched sound reminiscent of the flying cars in (the 1982 movie) 'Blade Runner.' "

The car's sound system would turn on automatically when the car starts and shut off when it reaches 20 kilometers per hour (12 mph), Nissan says. At higher speeds, tire noise provides enough audible clues.

The Washington Post published a story today on the subject as well. This story has an informative graph showing just how quiet a hybrid is in comparison to a conventional car.

At zero miles per hour (mph), a conventional car emits about 50 decibels of noise - the hybrid basically zero. At 6.2 mph, the conventional car emits about 58 decibels, the hybrid 50. They are virtually identical (61 vs. 60 decibels) at 12.4 mph.

The Post story quotes Robert Strassburger, vice president for vehicle safety at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, as saying, "Frankly, we've been working for 30 years to make cars quiet -- never thinking they could become too quiet." This point was also made by Nissan engineers in the Bloomberg story.

The Post story also says that Nissan engineers are concerned about driver reactions to the artificial sound generated by a hybrid or electric car. Some drivers, for instance, complained that the generated sounds made them sleepy or irritated.

Just what we need - noise induced driver rage.

The Bloomberg article says that Tokyo-based Datasystem Co. now makes a device selling for 12,800 yen ($140) that emits 16 different sounds including a cat’s meow, a cartoon-like "boing" and a human voice saying, "Excuse me."  The article didn't say whether the "excuse me" was in a polite or aggressive tone of voice. I suppose you can tune it.

I don't think I would be all that happy, though, with a hybrid car creeping up behind me while I am riding my bike blaring "Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me" or "Boing, Boing, Boing."

As the Post story notes, the proliferation of different sounds could quickly get out of hand without some sort of regulation, although Nissan engineers think that a hybrid or electric car's sound could add to its sales/marketing allure. I am sure all other car manufacturers are thinking the same thing.

Okay, Risk Factor readers, here's your chance to show off your creativity.

What sounds do you think electric or hybrid cars should make when they are traveling at slow speeds that can both enhance safety as well as driving/marketing appeal?

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The Spectacular Collapse of CryptoKitties, the First Big Blockchain Game

A cautionary tale of NFTs, Ethereum, and cryptocurrency security

8 min read
Mountains and cresting waves made of cartoon cats and large green coins.
Frank Stockton

On 4 September 2018, someone known only as Rabono bought an angry cartoon cat named Dragon for 600 ether—an amount of Ethereum cryptocurrency worth about US $170,000 at the time, or $745,000 at the cryptocurrency’s value in July 2022.

It was by far the highest transaction yet for a nonfungible token (NFT), the then-new concept of a unique digital asset. And it was a headline-grabbing opportunity for CryptoKitties, the world’s first blockchain gaming hit. But the sky-high transaction obscured a more difficult truth: CryptoKitties was dying, and it had been for some time.

The launch of CryptoKitties drove up the value of Ether and the number of transactions on its blockchain. Even as the game's transaction volume plummeted, the number of Ethereum transactions continued to rise, possibly because of the arrival of multiple copycat NFT games.

That perhaps unrealistic wish becomes impossible once the downward spiral begins. Players, feeling no other attachment to the game than growing an investment, quickly flee and don’t return.

Whereas some blockchain games have seemingly ignored the perils of CryptoKitties’ quick growth and long decline, others have learned from the strain it placed on the Ethereum network. Most blockchain games now use a sidechain, a blockchain that exists independently but connects to another, more prominent “parent” blockchain. The chains are connected by a bridge that facilitates the transfer of tokens between each chain. This prevents a rise in fees on the primary blockchain, as all game activity occurs on the sidechain.

Yet even this new strategy comes with problems, because sidechains are proving to be less secure than the parent blockchain. An attack on Ronin, the sidechain used by Axie Infinity, let the hackers get away with the equivalent of $600 million. Polygon, another sidechain often used by blockchain games, had to patch an exploit that put $850 million at risk and pay a bug bounty of $2 million to the hacker who spotted the issue. Players who own NFTs on a sidechain are now warily eyeing its security.

Remember Dragon

The cryptocurrency wallet that owns the near million dollar kitten Dragon now holds barely 30 dollars’ worth of ether and hasn’t traded in NFTs for years. Wallets are anonymous, so it’s possible the person behind the wallet moved on to another. Still, it’s hard not to see the wallet’s inactivity as a sign that, for Rabono, the fun didn’t last.

Whether blockchain games and NFTs shoot to the moon or fall to zero, Bladon remains proud of what CryptoKitties accomplished and hopeful it nudged the blockchain industry in a more approachable direction.

“Before CryptoKitties, if you were to say ‘blockchain,’ everyone would have assumed you’re talking about cryptocurrency,” says Bladon. “What I’m proudest of is that it was something genuinely novel. There was real technical innovation, and seemingly, a real culture impact.”

This article was corrected on 11 August 2022 to give the correct date of Bryce Bladon's departure from Dapper Labs.

This article appears in the September 2022 print issue as “The Spectacular Collapse of CryptoKitties.”

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