Hybrids, Too Quiet For Their Own Good?

They say that silence is golden. It might be true, unless you’re sight impaired and trying to cross the street in front of an oncoming hybrid. Close calls and concerned citizens have turned into calls to state representatives in California and now a bill, which was approved this week and sent on to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for review. The bill, pushed by State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), calls for the California Energy Commission to set up a committee to study the issue and report back with recommendations on what should be done.

More research into the situation seems both productive and proactive, though we could envision resulting mandates that would be pretty unproductive. There are hundreds of thousands of hybrids and electric vehicles on the streets of California, and that number is only going to increase with time, so odds are that close calls could eventually turn into really bad news one day.

But the irony of the situation is that one of the more admired aspects of hybrid and electric cars by people with a green tinge is that they’re quiet. Green drivers often use the silence of their vehicles as a badge of honor. (At the same time some gear-heads complain that if there’s no rumble of a big V8 it’s not attractive.)

So, what’s the answer? Dan Kysor, who lobbies the Legislature on behalf of the California Council of the Blind, tells the L.A. Times that his group just wants to somehow “mitigate the possible pedestrian safety hazards.” Kysor, who’s blind and says he’s had a few close scrapes himself, and his group aren’t making any definitive proposals; they just want the problem studied.

Kysor tells the Times he’s heard of a system being used in Japan that recreates the clip-clop of a horse, speeding up or slowing down to match the speed of the car. That’s just too cute — but it is in Japan, after all, homeland of Hello Kitty.

Car companies are taking the task seriously. Lotus Engineering, part of Lotus sports car, recently showed off a loudspeaker system that recreates the engine sound of a regular car. According to a story in the LA Times back in March, Toyota engineers have been working on a solution that would balance the needs of sight-impaired people with noise pollution.

There’s even a year-old Santa Clara-based startup called Enhanced Vehicle Acoustics that was started by Stanford researchers. The team is working on an after-market audio hack that they call “subtle,” which can add sounds “where and when you need it.”

You’re probably thinking, “Is this really a problem?” I thought that too when I first read about concerns of too-silent hybrids. Then, not three hours later, I saw a little old lady nearly get run over by a Prius driver that wasn’t paying attention — right outside my door. It was a little unnerving. But the again, so is the thought mandating any number of annoying noises — beeps, humming, fake engines — as the new voice of the hybrid and electric vehicle.

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