Moving Through India’s Traffic at a Whisper

Image credit: creepyhalloweenimages

For Americans, the automobile horn is emergency equipment, deployed to avoid collision or express road rage. For Indians, the horn is more of a conversational tool, used by everyone — and I mean everyone — as they jostle in traffic. The racket is deafening. One wonders if the Indian motorist is some sort of terrestrial bat, navigating with ears instead of eyes.

In this din, driving an electric scooter feels a bit insurgent. Ampere, a maker of electric two-wheelers, loaned me one of its bikes near the tail end of my two-month stay in India. I mentioned Ampere in a story about the connection between power outages and the electric vehicle industry in The New York Times, and wrote about the company’s frugal engineering techniques at Forbes.

I have nosed the bike cautiously through the streets of Chennai in the early morning and late at night when the traffic dies. If the street is quiet enough, pedestrians can hear the bike coming from behind. I can tell by the way they cock their heads that they detect an unfamiliar pitch. Here comes my electric scooter, emitting not the blat of a gas engine but that distinctive electric motor sound, somewhere between a buzz and a whine.  It is safe for them to gasp because I leave no exhaust in their faces.

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