“This Car Drives on Rock ‘N Roll!”

First subject for today: ringtones. Maybe you have a special one for your mobile telephone. Soon, though, you might be called upon to choose one for your new car. Well, at least Jyllands-Posten journalist Kurt Hedevang is using “ringtone” for the artificial motor-noise your future electric car may make just to let everyone else know of its presence (Get your own “ringtone” for your car). As he points out, for decades auto manufacturers have striven to come up with vehicles with ever-quieter engines – silence was good, it was the ideal to aim for. Now, however, for electrical vehicles a silent drive-train is a given, and suddenly that’s not so much of a good thing. It’s not as if there has been any wave of incidents where these vehicles caused injury; they’re still too rare for that. Nevertheless, their manufacturers now are determined to add some noise – artificial, if need be – to their vehicles to let other vehicles, near-by playing children, etc. know that they are there. Their stance is supported by a recent study from the University of California that showed that people could detect a conventional vehicle approaching at 8 km/hr from nine meters away, but an electric car only by the time it was 2 meters away.

Electric cars, it seems then, will make some noise. Hedevang quotes a New York Times article (which I could not track down) to the effect that the Japanese manufacturers Nissan and Toyota are onto this issue already: the former is seeking advice from the film industry (!) about which sounds to use, while the latter is content to consult the Japanese traffic authorities and interest-groups for the blind. But why not just let the customer choose his new car’s “ringtone”? There is also a quote from a BMW spokesperson that that should soon be possible for that company’s electric cars, but customers of the ultra-luxury “Karma” electric car from Fisker Automotive already get to do that. (So Hedevang’s article says; as for me, I could not find any reference to the choosing-your-own-engine-noise option on that Fisker Automotive website.)

Of course, you’ll always encounter contrary opinions to groundbreaking developments like this, and here those come from one Paul Scott of Santa Monica, CA, vice-president of the electric car interest-group “Plug In America.” Naturally, he owns and drives such a vehicle, a nice and quiet Toyota RAV4. For him, silence in a vehicle is next to godliness; having labored for so long to get to the silent motor, automotive engineers should not now be forced to surrender their achievement. Instead, by his reasoning it is still properly the vehicle driver’s responsibility to make sure he doesn’t hit anyone. So what does Scott do? Whenever he drives up to a (blind) corner, he opens up his Toyota’s window and turns up the radio.

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