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.
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.