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To protect pedestrians, government wants all hybrids and electric vehicles to emit a certain amount of noise

Forget gas mileage: The most striking aspect of the new Ford Focus Electric is what it doesn’t have.

“Battery-powered cars are intrinsically quiet, the motor sound falling between a whir and a whisper,” marvels a New York Times review of the car. “But the Focus is deep-space silent, the quietest of the many electric cars I’ve driven.”

And that, it turns out, is a problem. Thanks to the Pedestrian Safety Act of 2010, by this summer the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration is required to initiate a rule-making process for minimal vehicle noise: not how quiet, but how loud a car must be.

That’s because agency studies in 2009 and 2011 confirmed what many long suspected: Hybrids and electric cars are too quiet for the blind or the fully sighted to hear coming.

The agency found little statistically significant difference in collisions at speeds higher than 35 mph, when wind and tire noise negate the difference in engine noise. But at lower speeds, hybrids and electric vehicles are 37 percent more likely to hit walkers and 66 percent more likely to collide with cyclists than traditional gas-powered cars.

The victims didn’t hear it coming, but did automakers? As counterintuitive as adding car noise might seem, we’ve long had comparable safety laws in place: For instance, we add foul-smelling Butanethiol to natural gas so that it doesn’t sneak up on us in our homes. But there’s an even-more-apt comparison: sleigh bells.

Back in the age of real horsepower, the jingling of bells had little to do with winter cheer and plenty to do with not getting trampled to death. As early as 1797, Baltimore slapped $1 fines on people who didn’t make their sleighs noisy enough. Other cities followed suit, and even Detroit, the future Motor City, had a tough sleigh-bell ordinance, which could send silent-sleigh drivers to jail.

Despite years of complaints by the National Federation of the Blind — Honda was aware enough of the “noise” problem to file a 1994 patent for an electric-vehicle noise-generator — automakers could not or would not hear the problem creeping up behind them. The complaints became harder to ignore when, presaging federal collision findings the next year, studies in 2008 from the University of California-Riverside and from Western Michigan University showed that electric vehicles were hard to hear at low speeds.

The response of the industry was clumsy. Many automakers, including Honda and high-end manufacturer Tesla Motors, doggedly continued to manufacture hybrid and electric vehicles that ignored the issue. One motive for Tesla becomes apparent when you read its 2011 Securities and Exchange Commission filings: The safety feature “could negatively impact consumer interest in our vehicles.”
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