Safety Concerns Over Silent Hybrid Vehicles

It may have been amusing to fans of the popular NBC sitcom The Office when Andy, behind the wheel of his Prius, was able to sneak up on Dwight and pin him to a wall.  In reality, the silent nature of electric cars is no laughing matter and actually poses a potential safety hazard for many, including those with vision impairments.

In Japan, home of the Prius, growing concerns over the potential threat posed to pedestrians, children and the visually impaired have prompted the Transportation Ministry to convene a panel to assess the risks and recommend solutions.

The 13-member panel reportedly consists of consumers, advocates for the vision impaired, law enforcement officials, scholars and auto industry representatives.

"Blind people,’ said a spokesman for the Transportation Ministry, ‘depend on sounds when they walk, but there are no engine sounds from hybrid vehicles when running at low speed."

During its first meeting, the panel ‘decided to consider introducing a sound-making function’ that would activate when a hybrid vehicle switches from the noisier gas powered engine to the nearly silent electric motor.

No recommendation was made concerning the exact sound the device should produce, but the Transportation Ministry spokesperson said that it ‘should induce a response of caution.’

The panel is expected to deliver a report by the end of the year, and the Transportation Ministry’s Committee on Automobile Safety will consider its findings and recommendations in determining whether or not to draft new legislation to address the issue.

Toyota Motors spokesman, Paul Nolasco, has stated that the automaker has no immediate plans to install noise-emitting devices on its hybrid vehicles but added that, ‘if it becomes a social concert, it is something we will have to address.’

Toyota introduced a more affordable, revamped Prius in the Japanese market this past May and has already received orders for approximately 200,000 units, making it the best-selling domestic car in Japan.

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