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Visually impaired people and electric cars

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Vaughan | 11:11 UK time, Wednesday, 13 May 2009

With our growing concern for the environment seemingly not diminishing our desire to have our own personal transportation, electric cars are becoming a big deal. Whilst true all-electric vehicles are still comparatively rare due to their small size and limitations in how far they can travel between charges, hybrid cars - combining a standard internal combustion engine with one or more electric motors - are increasingly common on the roads.

hybrid_car.jpg

There's only one problem with these kinds of cars. Like any form of battery-operated machinery, they're virtually noiseless. That's great if you're travelling in them; not so great if you're visually impaired and trying to listen out for traffic when crossing the street. The solution? It sounds rather bizarre, but you force them to make some noise.

They've already done that in America, where manufacturers have been legally bound to install simulators in hybrid and electric cars that mimic the sound of petrol engines. Now these simulators are coming to Europe - the Lotus car company and The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association are conducting joint trials on them to see if they can make electric vehicles safer for visually impaired people.

The technology is pretty basic - just a speaker attached to the car's accelerator pedal. When the pedal is pushed down, the noise of a revving engine is pumped through the speaker. The simulator can be adjusted too, so that it belts out the growling sound of a sports car or the smooth and reassuring hum of a family hatchback. It's all very simple, yes, but it should do the job.

Except if you're Jeremy Clarkson, of course. The outspoken Top Gear presenter was quoted in last weekend's Sunday Times as saying: "The EU hasn't done its sums. Something like 80% of the noise of cars comes from the tyres, not the engine or exhaust". That's probably true at the speeds that he and The Stig race the latest supercar round the Top Gear test track, but not for the average suburban high street where visually impaired pedestrians are most likely to encounter electric vehicles.

But what do you think? Is this a sensible move to aid safety, or a rather over-the-top solution? Are there better ways to make low-noise electric and hybrid cars more 'visible' to visually impaired people?

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