Sound Alert System Issue for Hybrids and EVs Reaches New Level of Absurdity

By · March 08, 2011

Toyota Audio Alert

With scant evidence that hybrid and electric vehicles pose a genuine danger to blind pedestrians, children or the elderly, the federal government is working on final rules for a new law requiring a sound alert system for these quieter cars. Controversy about the issue reached a new level of absurdity in recent weeks as it caused the delay of bringing two new electric-drive vehicles to market.

There are currently nearly 2 million hybrid gas-electric cars on U.S. roads, none of which have artificial external systems to produce warning sounds. Advocacy organizations for the blind say that electric cars are more dangerous, and require special sounds to alert pedestrians as they approach, especially at low speeds.

Deliveries of the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid were postponed from January until April. Why? Because the sound warning device—which mimics the sound of a conventional engine—was designed to give drivers the ability to turn off the warning system. Apparently, pending rules from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will prohibit carmakers from allowing drivers to switch off the sounds.

Meanwhile, Nissan has slightly delayed delivery of the Nissan LEAF to customers in the United Kingdom. Why? Because its pedestrian warning system cannot be shut off. Apparently, UK law states that such sounds must be capable of being turned off between the hours of 11:00 pm and 6.00 am.

So, the reason given for why the Sonata Hybrid is delayed in the U.S. is the opposite reason for why the LEAF is delayed in the U.K.—and vice versa.

It’s unclear if swapping the two vehicles’ approach to artificial external audio for the two markets will resolve the issue—or what will happen to the Infiniti M35 Hybrid, another new model already featuring its own type of pedestrian alert system. Last fall, Toyota, the world's biggest producer of hybrids, announced that a sound alert will be available for the Prius and upcoming Prius Plug-in Hybrid in Japan. The entirely optional feature, emitting a synthesized electric motor sound, costs about $150.

At this stage, three things about this issue are certain. One: There is no independent conclusive study that proves that hybrids and electric cars pose a threat to pedestrians, or that making them noisier will mitigate any danger. Two: The lack of global standards for how to address a potential problem is causing confusion for carmakers, and delaying product from reaching consumers. And three: The issue is not going away.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.