Long, long ago schoolboys in advancing countries were taught about science subjects under headings rather different from those they suffer today. I have seen yellowing textbooks bearing such titular components as Heat, Light, Sound, Mechanics and Hydrostatics and Electricity and Magnetism. Nowadays the first four of those crop up in our learning lives often as applications of the fifth.

Our lives generally have changed as a consequence. See how we now get our heat, light, sound, work and transport. Look for instance at home heating. Competition once flared among differently fired boilers (eg coal, gas and oil burners) with their own thermal efficiencies, pollutant emissions, costs and other features. The future, however, looks electrical, while the most oppressive threat has become climate change. We are pressed to do away with CO2 emissions from burning carbonaceous fuels. This we believe we can accomplish by appropriate choice of energy source and type of generating plant, coupled if necessary (and possible) with CO2 separation and sequestration.

Electricity, the great enabler, is value-neutral, even if its applications are not. This near-cliché deserves more than a groan. Try it on sound instead of heat. Electricity’s applicability to the making of noise (bad) does not contradict its facility with music (good). And either noise or music can be an unwanted byproduct of otherwise desirable electrification. The value mix in some modern instances is bewildering. Electrified automobilism is one of them. It makes value judgment fun for only the most perverse of philosophers. It will also call for diversification of the kinds of electricity offered, perhaps through smart grids, and may alter the composition of the global electricity market.

Consider the case of the electric motorcycle. Claimedly the world’s first hybrid scooter came out last year. It was an Italian contribution to modern civilisation, the Piaggio MP3 Hybrid, a three-wheeler powered by a lithium-ion battery in harness with a combustion engine. Its merits over its orthodox predecessors include lower fuel consumption and lower emission rates, including near-zero noise pollution. One press reviewer noted that when he test-drove the bike the only noise he was alive to came from the horns of such other road users as were irritated by his all-but-silent progress.

Then there is the Tesla lithium-cobalt-batteried two-seat roadster†. Dimensionally, it matches the Lotus Elise sports car. So far it has been seen mainly in the USA but overseas markets are being sought. Attendant publicity has included a UK test-driver’s gleeful newspaper account. This reporter’s joy seemed to be less due to the car’s quiet running than to its leap from standing to 60 mile/h in 3.9s, and the Sport model beats even that. ‘This’, he wrote, ‘is deep into Ferrari territory’.

Accordingly, it could be the more terrifying in territory traversed by sedater traffic. Electric propulsion can, undoubtedly, reduce noise pollution by automobiles even more effectively than it lessens their gas, vapour and particulate pollution. So much so that national authorities (for example in the USA) are looking into the looming electrification with special suspicion. The hushed infiltration of traffic, whether by crawlers or projectiles, seems to be a greater immediate threat than most others to unwary competitors for highway space.

Research is being done on the kind of sound that normally quiet cars and motorbikes might be equipped to emit, for safety’s sake. I have read a New York Times writer’s quotation of a remark by a spokeswoman of the German carmaker, BMW. ‘One possibility’, she said, ‘is choosing your own noise’. As some of us know too well, there are free spirits who do this already, broadcasting their favourite music as loudly as possible from their entirely combustion-engined vehicles.

It is consoling to think that the new dangers of electric motoring may be reducible by electrically operated countermeasures, perhaps with the aid of new technology, as has become customary with successive novelties of electrified civilisation††. But I fear that sonic inoculation of transport arteries could make roadway ailments worse.