My friend Gilbert was the first Prius owner I knew; a hacker, Gilbert was accustomed to eating at a drive-through at 3AM, but the first time he took his silent car through the lane, the order-taker curtly said that they didn't serve people on foot; when he insisted that he was in a car, she demanded to know why she couldn't hear the engine idling?
For more than a decade, my friends and I have been joking about the coming age of engine-tones for electric cars (which run silently all the time) and hybrid cars (which run silently at low speeds). I drive a Prius now, and I know that I've had to tap my horn a couple of times to alert pedestrians to my silent, creeping presence as I rolled toward them.
The new legal mandate to emit engine-tones will add some expense to cars in the form of a waterproof external speaker. On the other hand, it gives us all the potential to have cars that play a quiet, 100-strings-orchestra rendition of the Lowrider arpeggio, or the original Nokia ringtone.
The rules could still be annulled by Trump in 2017.
NHTSA estimates the odds of a hybrid vehicle being involved in a pedestrian crash are 19 percent higher compared with a traditional gas-powered vehicle. About 125,000 pedestrians and bicyclists are injured annually.
The rules will also help the blind and visually impaired.
"This is a common-sense tool to help pedestrians, especially folks who are blind or have low vision, make their way safely," said NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind in a statement.
The rules apply to hybrid and electric cars, SUVs, trucks and buses weighing up to 10,000 pounds and seek to prevent crashes at intersections or when electric vehicles are backing up.
U.S. finalizes 'quiet cars' rules to prevent injuries [David Shepardson/Reuters]