Will Pedestrian Warning Sounds Be Standard for Hybrids?

Last week, Nissan announced that its 2012 Infiniti M35h would be the world’s first hybrid to come equipped with standard pedestrian warning sounds when it goes on sale early next year. The car will be outfitted with Nissan’s VSP warning system, which makes faint whooshing noises at varying frequencies depending on the speed at which a car is traveling while in all-electric mode.

Other hybrid makers seem to be moving in the same direction—perhaps in anticipation of new regulatory frameworks that could mandate such systems on all vehicles capable of driving in near-silence.

At its debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, it was revealed that the Kia Optima Hybrid, which will hit the market sometime next year, will also come with what the company calls, “Virtual Engine Sound System.” That system will be based on one that Kia’s parent company, Hyundai, developed for its BlueOn electric vehicles, which are currently in fleet testing.

The M hybrid’s warning system is also derived from one developed for its parent label’s electric vehicle models. The Nissan LEAF was the first Renault-Nissan model to employ VSP, which consists of a computer-controlled synthesizer running through a speaker mounted into the vehicle’s front bumper. Sound is produced whenever the vehicle is operating at speeds of lower than 20 mph—after which the natural sounds of a vehicle encountering air resistance and friction are sufficient to alert pedestrians to its presence.

More Systems on Their Way

Though Infiniti and Kia announced their standard warning systems just recently, they’re far from the only carmakers offering or exploring artificial noises for hybrid and electric vehicles. The Chevy Volt includes GM’s Pedestrian-Friendly Alert System (which is currently driver-activated, but may become automatic in future models.)

Toyota has also begun offering optional pedestrian alert systems on its hybrids in Japan, where regulators moved recently to require carmakers to provide optional warnings on all hybrid and electric vehicles. Toyota is said to also be considering offering the option on vehicles sold in the United States.

Toyota’s new pedestrian alert sound for the Prius.

Driving the emergence of these systems are worries that the spread of near-silent vehicles could pose a threat to the pedestrian safety—particularly for the visually impaired. While many plug-in vehicle advocates have called these fears overblown, carmakers seem resigned to the prospect that one day, this relatively inexpensive (and by most accounts unobtrusive) feature, could become the industry standard—if not the law.

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  • Yegor

    This sound is terrible! Why not simply simulate the normal internal combustion engine (ICE) sound?

  • Anonymous

    Just what we need. More noise in our lives.

  • Anonymous

    I think some ‘noise’ maker is needed.

    From my experience, when I drive on the parking lot in EV mode and there are people in front of me, they don’t move to the side since they don’t hear a car coming from behind – when I did the same with my old car, people went to the side and let me pass. Now, at some point they might realize I am there and look ‘shocked’ – not really a big deal, you just have to pay more attention when being in EV mode in situations like that since people don’t hear you sneaking up.

    But for blind (or almost blind) this is of course a bigger problem in day to day live where they ‘listen’ on an intersection if someone is coming. That’s why there needs to be some audible signal (I don’t like the word ‘noise’ – that sounds to loud and annoying)

  • Pat

    Give me a break!
    I have been driving a Camry hybrid close to 4 years. I never startled anyone when I drive by them in slow speed. In fact, doesn’t matter how you drive it, the car always has some kind of noise. Tire noise, heat/ air conditioner fan etc..

  • Anonymous

    this could be just money scheme… imagine all the money they can make by offering to “download latest car noises from iturne”!

  • JJJ

    I was walking my dog down the middle of a residential street last summer (no sidewalks) and I had no idea a prius was slowly following us.

    It’s necessary for the blind

  • Baltimore Prius Owner

    I’d like my Prius to sound like an F16 fighter jet coming in hot!!!! Imagine people diving for cover. Come on, there has to be somebody out there who can dub the sound to a video and youtube it? I’d buy it in a heartbeat!! OK, time for my morning coffee….:o)))

  • Capt. Concernicus

    @ Prius Owner in Baltimore,

    Haha…I want my Prius to sound like an A-10’s cannon letting off rounds on an unsuspecting enemy tank! Or maybe just let the horn sound like that. Watching people dive for cover would be hilarious!

  • Anonymous

    some may argue more noise will impair other critical noises (e.g. a blind person may not hear a car coming from the left when there is a harley coming from the right, which will mask other surrounding noises).

    common sense is needed here. this is a driver behavior issue (i.e. driving at a reasonable speed, appropriate use of warning devices such as a horn), not a car issue. let’s not let this turn into a noise arms race by mandating minimum noise levels. otherwise all bicycles would need the same device too.

    perhaps a happy median is to provide an alternate horn button allowing a car to emit softer warning tones for pedestrians without blaring the horn and startle them.

  • bwilson4web

    We’ve had 10 years of the Prius and Honda hybrids yet there are no fatality numbers showing a risk. If there had been a risk, it would have been seen a long, long time ago.

    The real problem are all pedestrian accidents and this distraction, “Bell the Hybrid,” does not address the 4,000 pedestrians who died last year. Near as I can tell, Prius-pedestrian deaths have been 4 this year: Seattle, Newport Beach, and Walton.

    So to potentially reduce the less than 0.1% of all Prius-pedestrian deaths, the NHTSA will ignore 4,000 dead pedestrians. Congress will go after the ‘mote’ on the corpses of a small town.

    In one respect, “Bell the Hybrid” means hybrid owners will have relief, a legal defense. “Your honor, my noise maker was working when I ran over that pedestrian. By law, they are supposed to jump out of the way.” . . . and another 4,000 pedestrians will die.

    Bob Wilson

  • bwilson4web

    Currently this bill, S.3302, is being circulated by Senator Rockefeller. Sad to say, you can’t see the “Bell the Hybrid” language in Thomas because he is circulating ‘a substitute amendment.’ The only way he can get this nonsense into law is by hiding it.

    It is always worthwhile to call or visit the local Senator offices or FAX your objection. It doesn’t mean it will work but at least you’ll be able to say in the future, “I did what I could.”

    Bob Wilson, Huntsville, AL

  • mysterie

    Odd I could of swore, some Priuses already have an electric whine setup for the cars. Every once in a while one drives by in the parking lot and I hear a lite electric whine. I thought that is the sound they placed on the car because I only hear it on the newer models. I have never startled anyone with my Fusion except for fast food people who don’t hear me pull up to the window, lol.

  • Anonymous

    So we are not looking for a better world with less noise pollution? Just think, if everyone produced less noise then you could hear the tires, belts turning on the engine and maybe the sweet whistle of the driver. And, for the person walking in the MIDDLE of the street because of no sidewalks. Try walking on the side of the street so cars can pass. As with most things, it is how society acts that makes the problem not the innovation.