Hyundai Delays Launch of Sonata Hybrid to Tweak “Virtual Engine Sound System”

Hyundai Motor Company is delaying delivery of it new Sonata Hybrid sedan in the U.S. until at least the end of this month while it tweaks the electronic device that mimics the sound of a conventional gasoline engine.

On January 4, President Obama signed the new law requiring all hybrid and all-electric vehicles sold in the U.S. to be equipped with “virtual engine sound systems” within the next few years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is writing the rules to enforce the new law and there is speculation that it will not permit the sound systems to be manually operated.

Hyundai had initially planned to equip the Sonata Hybrid with a dash mounted switch that would have allowed motorists to manually turn the car’s virtual engine sound device on and off.

Hyundai spokesman Jim Trainor said, “We were hearing that at some point NHTSA would not allow [the device] to be turned off.  We said, ‘why put this thing out there now and have to redo it in a few months?’”

Trainor said the delay will mean a limited supply of Sonata Hybrids will be arriving at U.S. dealership until late March or early April. He declined to say how many Sonata Hybrids have already arrived in the U.S. but stated that about 700 vehicles are either in port or in transit from South Korea. The new Sonata Hybrid was originally scheduled to arrive at U.S. dealerships in January.

At higher speeds, all-electrics vehicles naturally generate wind and tire noise. Gasoline-electric hybrid models also generate engine noise as they switch from electric power to the conventional combustion method of propulsion at higher driving speeds.

However, the nearly-silent nature of all-electric and hybrid vehicles as they travel at low speeds makes them a hazard to pedestrians, especially children and individuals with hearing and vision impairments.  Compounding the problem is the fact that urban areas, where motorists and pedestrians share the streets and vehicles travel at lower speeds are also the areas with the highest concentration of electric vehicles.

In 2009, Nissan engineer Toshiyuki Tabata noted that the idea of intentionally making vehicles noisier went against his grain. “We fought for so long to get rid of that noisy engine sound,” said Tabata.

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