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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.

6 Responses to “Hybrids, Too Quiet For Their Own Good?”

  1. There is a nearly identical bill before Congress, HR 5734, and SB 1174 ensures California tax payers will pay for the same ‘study’ twice. This ‘study’ looks just like the Federal bill, HR 5734, that has a hook to impose noise makers on hybrids. Read the bills, not the claims of the advocates.

    In June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held a hearing in DC and the record is available at: – search NHTSA-2008-0108-0020 to get the facts and data. In 5 years of NHTSA accident data, the Prius has the same pedestrian accident rate as today’s cars. About 4,700 pedestrians die each year of which 5 are blind and none of the blind have been killed by a Prius in silent or other mode.

    The blind and their advocates are fond of their ‘experiments’ but all their noise makers will do is perpetuate the same pedestrian accident rate we have today. Safety is not improved and the existing, not their fantasy, accident data shows that to be the case.

  2. We can’t forget that there are two sides to the solution: while we could decide to outfit all the millions of hybrids with noise-making devices alerting the blind and annoying the rest of us, we could alternatively outfit all the (lesser) millions of blind people with vehicle detectors, alerting them to cars and everything else. Lord knows it would make more sense, though I haven’t seen any technologies to vouch for in this area. At some point it makes more sense for those with disabilities to adapt to the environment rather than the other way round.

  3. My best friend is blind, and I have no desire to see her killed because people think it would be “inconvenient” to install some sort of noise creating device on hybrids and electric cars. Blind people often rely on the sound of traffic to know when to stop at a light, and when to cross the street. Electric buses are certainly the exception rather than the norm, I have personally lived in three major cities, none of which were outfitted with electric buses. This is definitely a serious issue for blind people, and I applaud California’s efforts to address the problem.

  4. Lots of cities have electric powered buses, tramway, trolley, you name it, and for decades. How did the sight impaired managed to survived with those EVs in the streets ?

    It is not an hybrid car specific issue. This problem of silent vehicles (including bikes, scooters) for sight impaired people is a general problem, not an hybrid car specific problem. Pointing to hybrid cars in particular is opportunistic. This problem has been going on for decades. I agree we have to find a solution to guarantee safety for sight impaired people in this world of increasing silent vehicles. They can claim that there are more and more silent vehicles in the street, and they need to sense them approaching. But, let not make this issue an hybrid car issue…

  5. Great…more wasted money on ADA. kind of like mandating that there be 50 handicapped parking spaces in front of every Home Depot or Walmart. At some point people driving need to just be responsiible for not running over the pedestrian. Making the transition to alternative energy vehicles will be difficult enough without adding these ridiculous obstacles.

    I don’t know about you, but not hearing the sound of all of our automobiles would be a very nice change. I can’t wait.

    I suppose it is only a matter of time before Toyota gets sued over their vehicles being too quiet. Only in the good ole USA would this happen. Its a shame.