Monday, June 09, 2008

The sound of one piston firing...

If you haven't been around an electric or hybrid vehicle, there is one curious aspect that frankly creeped me out: they don't make any noise. We had friends over for dinner who had just bought a Prius and we all went out to look at it when they left.

The car just sort of rolled back out of the driveway like the brake had slipped or something, the only sound was the crunching of gravel. It got me to thinking (and maybe some of you hybrid owners can help) about knowing the car was working when it doesn't make any noise. For example, you're waiting to turn left on a busy road or pull out into a crowded oncoming stream of traffic. The last thing to boost my confidence would be a silent, unvibrating car. That's what a dead car sounds like. It would take a long time to have the confidence, I think, that when I mash on the accelerator, something would happen.

Of course, another problem is we have come to depend on noise to remind us cars are around.

Hybrid and electric vehicles are potentially silent killers thanks to their stealthy electric engines that do not warn pedestrians they are coming. So goes the argument for making them produce some kind of warning noise, a proposal strongly backed by the National Federation for the Blind.

A bill backed by 16 US members of Congress would require the Department of Transportation to establish minimum sound levels for all hybrid and electric vehicles. And just last month, a mother whose son was hit by a Toyota Prius raised concerns over the stealthy nature of such cars. [More]
Am I the only one who can imagine a individual "car-tone" download industry arising, similar to ringtones?


Anonymous said...

John, I did a little research on hybrids. Discovered that the motor comes on when the car reaches between 35 an 40, seem the battery does produce enough at that speed. So the only time it is all electric is when you at entering or leaving your driveway.

John Phipps said...


That was my understanding as well. My reaction was to the lack of audible/tactile feedback to let you know the car was actually running. I've had cars quit at the wrong time. I know that sensation, and it feels a lot like what happens in these cars.

Don't get me wrong - this is not a reason to be down on the technology, but an internal-combustion acclimation bias for drivers.

Heck, I remember when it was common practice to rev your engine at a stoplight. This is exactly the opposite.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, downloadable car sounds and artificial engine vibration motors. Maybe you better patent that idea right quick. I want one that sounds like an idling hot-rod.

Anonymous said...

We analyzed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data from 2002-2006 and found hybrids are no more or less dangerous than other cars in any situation. The anecdotal reports of hybrid 'dangers' are just that compared to the eulogies for the 5,000 dead pedestrians and cyclists killed every year by ordinary cars.

Proposals to add sound generators to hybrids simply means the last thing someone may hear is a government mandated, noise maker. Don't be fooled again.

Bob Wilson

John Phipps said...


It may have been hard to tell, but my suggestion was mostly humorous. Still, the first time one slides by you almost silently is startling.

Anonymous said...

just make it so no one over 30 can drive them. The radios will be so loud anyone within a block will here it coming