Hybrid Cars Are About to Get a Whole Lot Noisier

Hybrid automobiles and natural gas are both (potentially) silent killers.

You may already know about the dangers of natural gas. Because it is colorless and odorless in its natural form, there’s no way that people would know they are breathing it in. That’s why municipalities mandate that gas suppliers mix in an artificial odor with the raw natural gas — so that people can smell it if there’s a leak and know that they are in danger.

Hybrid cars have similar issues. When they first hit the market, consumers marveled at how quiet the engine was when the vehicles were running. That’s great for the driver and passengers, but could be potentially dangerous to other people like cyclists, pedestrians, or visually-impaired individuals. If you can’t hear a hybrid vehicle approaching, you put yourself in danger of getting hit by that vehicle.

Thankfully, the government has recognized this hazard — which means that hybrid vehicles will be getting noisier in the future.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been ordered to draft noise regulations for hybrid vehicles. The idea is to make hybrids noisy enough for people on the street to hear them. After taking comments from the public for two months, the agency will have until July of 2012 to finish the standards — which wouldn’t take effect until at least January of 2014.

Some companies are already addressing this problem. For example, the Nissan Leaf hybrid produces a “high-pitched whine” when it is moving forward at low speeds. But a company called ECTunes appears to have come up with a better solution.

Not only does ECTunes’ system send out an artificial “engine noise” sound until a hybrid car reaches about 18 miles per hour, but it incorporates speakers which only direct the noise to the area in front of the car. Similarly, the system emits a pattern of “melodic beeps” when the car is in reverse — and the sound is funneled toward the rear of the car in the same manner. When the vehicle is stopped, the engine noise is directed in both directions. ECTunes’ specialized technology helps notify passersby of its presence without causing undue noise pollution.

So what types of sounds might be incorporated into hybrid vehicles in the future? A ticking noise? A programmable melody (like your cell phone ringtone)? A voice that says something like, “Hybrid car present”?

Whatever solution is implemented in the coming years, it represents another step in the evolution of hybrid vehicles. And that’s perfectly consistent with the record of improvement of all auto safety features in passenger vehicles, hybrid or gas-powered.

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