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Hybrid Cars Feared as Too Quiet for Safety

October 19, 2009

Hybrid Cars Feared as Too Quiet for Safety

Electric and hybrid cars are often touted as quieter than conventional vehicles, but research suggesting that the muted noise could pose risks to pedestrians is leading to second thoughts. With no combustion engine or exhaust system, electric cars can be nearly silent, and hybrids are also very quiet at slow speeds when using only their electric motors.  

In Japan such cars will be required by the government to install artificial noise makers, Japanese media reported Friday. The measure came after a recent study by Lawrence Rosenblum, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, found that the lack of noise may threaten the safety of pedestrians.

In the study funded by the U.S. National Federation of the Blind, researchers recorded the sounds of hybrid and combustion-engine cars approaching from different directions at 8 km per hour. Subjects listening to the recordings in a lab were able to determine from which direction the conventional car was coming when it was about 8.4 m away, but they couldn’t judge the hybrid’s approach until it was as close as 2 m.

A car that operates too quietly would be dangerous not only for the blind but also for children, the elderly, runners and cyclists, Prof. Rosenblum said. Because of the potential dangers, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recommended that the U.S. Congress pass a law requiring that electric and hybrid cars be audible.

Some carmakers are seeing opportunities in such regulations. European carmaker Fisker Automotive says the 2010 model of its Karma electric sports car will feature a device that can make the car sound like a jet plane. Better Life, a firm developing customized car sounds, says that they can make electric vehicles even sound like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. They expect increased audibility to be able to resolve the safety issue as well as complaints that people feel bored when driving electric cars because of the lack of noise.

In Korea, Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group has developed a simulated engine sound system which will be included on new hybrid models.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 19, 2009 11:46 am

    Great story, but Fisker Automotive is an American company based in southern California. Thanks!

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