Nathan's column: Plugged in and way too quiet
Bit by bit, volt by volt, extension cord by comically oversized extension cord, electric cars are gaining traction on American roads. As gas prices have climbed and technology has improved, the idea of ditching fossil fuels has become more acceptable to drivers.
These aren't the electric cars that showed up a generation ago. Those were tiny, underpowered boxes that were no fun to drive and, if I remember correctly, would zap random passersby with bolts of electricity.
Times have definitely changed. No longer do you have to power your electric car by shuffling your feet on a shag carpet. Some modern models are legitimate performance cars, with sleek bodies and the ability to get upward of 25 miles on a single charge. Truly, we are living in future times.
The cars are not perfect, though. I don't think you're allowed to drive them in the rain, for one thing. It's kind of like dropping a hair dryer in the bathtub. Also, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they're too darn quiet.
That's right: Electric cars may be saving the Earth, but their a whisper-quiet menace on the roadways.
Because electric cars make virtually no noise at low speeds, federal regulators are worried pedestrians will not notice them and will end up splayed across the hoods of plug-in vehicles nationwide. According to a rule proposed last week, they would like to require makers of electric cars to add artificial noise to let people know they're there.
This is entirely reasonable, of course. Pedestrians can't always be expected to look for nearby cars. They have text messages to send.
(There is also, it's worth mentioning, a legitimate concern here for the blind. According to a story published last week in the Boston Globe, the rule has been sought by the National Federation for the Blind. But that fact is significantly less funny than that texting joke.)
According to the Globe story, car manufacturers would have some flexibility in the noise they choose to add to their cars. They could install external speakers that play traditional engine sounds. Or, for a more custom experience, maybe they could record each car buyer making engine noises with their mouth. Or just repeating, "Hey! Look out!"
There are plenty of songs about cars that might work. There's Charlie Ryan's Hot Rod Lincoln, or something like two-thirds of the Beach Boys' catalog. There's Ministry's Jesus Built My Hot Rod, and Cake's Satan is My Motor, two songs I've always thought should be played together more often.
None of this comes cheap, of course. According to the Globe article, adding external speakers to electric cars would cost an estimated $25 million per year, or about $35 per vehicle. The NHTSA expects the change result in 2,800 fewer pedestrian injuries and 35 fewer deaths over the lifetime of each model year of hybrid or electric car.
That is an admirable goal, but I can't help but think there is a simpler, less expensive solution if we simply look to the past and a time when hot rod-minded youngsters found ways to add automotive noise to otherwise silent vehicles.
Automakers, it's time to start putting playing cards in the spokes of your electric cars.