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By Jordan W. Charness

For my last column of 2009, I thought I would take a look at an issue that may someday become very important if the greening of transportation takes off and electric and hybrid vehicles ever become the norm. It’s an issue that is just starting to bubble up and one where all the parties seem to have a valid point, even if they all appear to disagree with each other.

The good thing about electric and hybrid vehicles is that they pollute much less than a conventional vehicle. Not only that, but they also don’t contribute significantly to noise pollution, either. When driving on their electric motors, electric and hybrid vehicles are virtually silent. While this sounds like a good idea to most, there are some groups that disagree.

I have read that some associations representing the visually impaired are concerned that, since these vehicles are silent, it is difficult for those who rely on their hearing when crossing the street to hear vehicles coming.

Some have suggested that when these vehicles are in electric mode they should have a speaker artificially reproducing the sound of an engine, which will serve as a warning for those who cannot see.

But what sound would it make? Although there is no consensus yet that cars in silent electric mode should make any sound at all, if the car makers did agree to add fake engine sounds what kind of engine would it sound like?

Some suggest that there should be a standardized fake engine sound so that as soon as a visually impaired person heard that sound he or she would know that it was coming from an electrified vehicle.

On the other hand manufacturers often work very hard to make sure a specific model has a specific, easily recognized engine sound which adds to its distinctive nature and value. Probably one of the most distinctive engine sounds in the world is the sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle’s rumble. If they ever came out with an electric or hybrid vehicle, would you want to buy it if it had the same fake engine sound as a Chevrolet Volt?

Should there be a range of recognized fake engine sounds? Should anyone who buys a hybrid or electric vehicle be allowed to customize a fake engine sound to satisfy his or her inner child? Will fake engine sounds be patentable and would the different sounds all sound like motors or will just a warning warble suffice?

With all these important unanswered questions, it’s probably just a matter of time before the government steps in to legislate what the artificial engine sounds should be. But will there be a worldwide standard? If you drive a Canadian hybrid or electric vehicle equipped with a Canadian government-approved fake engine sound into the United States, will it have to come with a switch to change the sound to the U.S. fake engine sound if theirs differs from our own?

There are probably as many answers to these questions as there are people reading this column and I’d invite you to e-mail me your answers to any or all of them and I’ll try and put them together into some kind of coherent column for early next year. Maybe if your suggestions are good enough I will even send a copy to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the other federal parties so that they can have something to think about when they get around to drafting a law that we’ll all be stuck following.

Happy holidays!

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