Clothespins and playing cards, or Rosie’s blaring, were my best answers to stealthy EVs

Fifteen years ago, we were seeing an increased number of electrified vehicles, but not hearing them. Much discussion went on about what to do, so in a light vein, I wrote this opinion piece for Automotive News. The editor declined my own illustration. Here it is, together with the story, for the first time.

I recently drove silently up to a hotel entrance and surprised the bellman, who didn’t realize that my big Lexus was a gasoline-electric hybrid.

Understandably, he thought it was a case of pure refinement, but I assured him the LS 600h L had been in electric mode at that point–ergo, the silence.

The incident reminded me of a Wall Street Journal story of Feb. 13, 2007: “Blind pedestrians say quiet hybrids pose safety threat.”

The Journal has been about as receptive to hybrids as Car and Driver and much of the rest of the enthusiast press. They have hardly stopped gagging at the haughtiness of hybrid owners.

As [the late] Denise McCluggage wrote in an AutoWeek column, “If one could convert into fuel the miasma of self-satisfaction hovering over a smuggery of Prius drivers, any energy crisis would be averted.”

But the criticism about being too quiet is something new.

For example, special training techniques are required in habituating guide dogs to hybrids.

It’s a serious issue, but it might be easy to get carried away looking for solutions.

Advocacy groups sound off

Advocacy groups have urged the use of noise generators.

One proposal, according to the Journal story, is for “a device built into the axle that could make a sound as the wheels rotate.” I can’t wait to see hybrids fitted with clothespins and playing cards.

Naturally enough, my mind has turned to what other sounds might signal the impending arrival of a Prius. A mechanical clacking? A musical hum?

I must admit that I had come up with nothing more specific until I returned from my road trip in the big Lexus and read in the June 30 Automotive News: “Lobbyists for blind cite dangers of too-quiet cars.”

There is a picture of an innocuous Prius over a caption that includes the phrase “several near-misses with pedestrians.” It’s as if Herbie the Love Bug has been dragged in on felony charges.

The story says kids, bicyclists, and animals also are imperiled by stealthy hybrids. One advocate “called for minimum sounds that mimic the noise made by traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines.”

I can foresee a market for hybrid noise generation that’s far more robust than necessary: rumbling like a 389-cubic-inch Pontiac GTO with Tai-Power or shrieking like a V-12 Ferrari.

Beyond that, individuals supposedly will be able to tailor their cars’ sound cues. I can’t even tailor my computer’s incoming mail notification. Anything very cool from a hybrid car seems unlikely.

On the other hand, I can imagine popular, preinstalled regional offerings in that department. One would be Rosie O’Donnell’s voice on a message for New Yorkers, ordering everybody out of the way. My friend who teaches high school journalism in Kansas City says hybrids there would just moo.

Bell-ringing footmen

A bizarre proposal, I think, is that blind pedestrians would carry a sensor to indicate when a hybrid is near. Maybe it would be like one of those disks that buzz when your restaurant table is ready.

An automotive journalist pal says the sensor idea reminds him of the early days of motoring in England, when a bell-ringing footman went ahead of the car to warn horsemen.

In 1993, my [now-late] friend Larry Fields took disability retirement from Ford Motor Co., where he had worked 26 years in railroad car control at the Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich. A degenerative condition left him with ever-narrowing tunnel vision.

Over the course of events, the woman doing the newspaper motor route in Fields’ quiet subdivision started driving a Honda Insight, and one day he crossed in front of her. Luckily, she stopped for him.

“Usually I hear all the cars,” Fields said.

“I was kind of like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t hear it! She was under electric power. I didn’t pay too much attention to that, but I do now. All it takes is one experience to learn.”

Maybe it helped that Fields had some sight remaining. He said, “If someone’s totally blind, he’d be screwed–not to mention run over.”

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