Press the Start button on the Toyota Prius and you’re greeted with silence. If you don’t notice the flashing lights on the instrument panel you might not even realize the hybrid is running until you shift into gear, and even then, about the only thing you’ll notice as you creep forward is the crunch of rubber on the road.
While many drivers like how quiet Prius and other battery-based vehicles operate when in electric vehicle mode, that very silence worries safety advocates, including the National Federation of the Blind. The problem is that for pedestrians, near-silent vehicles can creep up and take you by deadly surprise.
That’s led federal safety regulators to put together new rules that, if passed, would give the industry 18 months to set minimum vehicle sound levels. In turn, the carmakers would have three years to phase in new methods to meet the rules.
How loud a car would need be is unclear, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants the “alert sound” to come on automatically. And don’t expect to be able to download a ring tone. The rules would require that manufacturers or dealers set the appropriate alert, not the customer.
With pedestrian collisions accounting for as much as 10% of the annual highway fatalities in the U.S., experts take the issue seriously; indeed, the industry has given the proposal its support.
But there have been some quirky proposals as to how to address the issues. A prototype Brabus Smart fortwo has a switch that allows a driver to opt for either the sound of a revving V8 or sci-fi bleeps and boops may suitable for the fold-up car from the Jetsons cartoon.
The Senate will hold a hearing on the issue before a final version of the proposal goes up for vote.