“When a piece of heavy equipment backs up, it goes ‘beep, beep, beep,’ and everybody knows what it means.” Thus speaks Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of global electrification, about a growing controversy over whether electric vehicles (EVs) should emit sounds to let the blind and other pedestrians know they’re on the scene. She thinks those sounds should be standardized, so you’ll think “something heavy this way comes” when you hear it.

Some car companies much prefer the idea of creating their own sound, and samples emulating the Blade Runner cars and the Starship Enterprise have been proposed.

I wrote a New York Times piece on this that appeared today, and as I write it’s the 13th most emailed story at the paper. I guess people really get caught up in the possibilities of this. If car owners can just get control over the process and customize their sounds, the “cartones” industry will be born, and soon people will be spending tens of millions of dollars on them.

There are an amazing number of possible pitfalls. Can you imagine using Rick James’ Superfreak as your cartone, and then waking up your neighbor when you get home from a party at 3 a.m.?

This is a serious subject, though. Plug-in hybrid cars and battery EVs are super-quiet, and a study at the University of California, Riverside concludes that people listening to recordings on headphones can hear a regular gas car coming from 28 feet away, but a hybrid in battery mode only when it’s seven feet away. Yikes!

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Society of Automotive Engineers are working on standards, and the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, introduced in both Houses of Congress this year, would require a federal safety standard to protect pedestrians from ultra-quiet cars. Jenny Rosenberg, a spokesman for Congressman Edolphus Towns (D-NY), said the bill has 140 co-sponsors in the House.

Another key question: Should the driver have control of the sound (sort of like a horn, only quieter), should it be on all the time, or should it shut off at, say, 20 miles per hour? Versions have been proposed that take all these approaches.

I think that, ultimately, there will be safety-related sounds from EVs and plug-in hybrids. My guess is that they will eventually be standardized so your mind will automatically register “electric car” when you hear it. And that’s probably a good thing to reduce the mayhem on the roads.

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