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Fake noise will make hybrids & electrics safer

If you’ve ever stood, walked or ridden a bicycle in proximity to an idling electric-powered vehicle completely unaware that it was there, you’ll be pleased to learn that hybrids and electrics are closer to getting a fake engine noise to prevent such incidents – and the many vehicular accidents this lack has already caused.

In fact, anyone who relies on the sound of an engine to stay safe near traffic – most especially the blind – are affected.

Chevy Volt, the best-selling plug-in hybrid, has a warning sound in the 2013 that the driver can activate by pushing a button.

Yesterday, January 7, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed new rules requiring hybrids and electric vehicles to emit a sound. NHTSA believes that if electric-powered vehicles were to emit a simulated low engine hum at speeds under 18mph, about 2,800 injuries would be prevented over the life of each model year of vehicles.

Manufacturers would be required to add a speaker system, which the agency estimates will cost around $30 per vehicle – or about $23 million across the industry, once the rules go into effect in 2016.

There’s still a 60-day public comment period, then the NHTSA must respond to any issues that are raised, and then the rules are finalized.

Beginning with all 2012 models, all U.S. versions of Toyota Prius, the best-selling gasoline-electric hybrid, automatically make a whirring sound below 15mph. It cannot be disabled by drivers.

And just as any gearhead worth her wrench can tell a gas-engine vehicle by its growl, we should be able to not only know the electric vehicle is there, but also what make and maybe even model is poised to scare – or hit – us. That’s because NHTSA has given manufacturers a lot of leeway with regards to design and the “engine noises” they can choose. If you’re interested in what the agency is proposing, sound-wise, you can follow-up here.

“Our proposal would allow manufacturers the flexibility to design different sounds for different makes and models while still providing an opportunity for pedestrians, bicyclists and the visually impaired to detect and recognize a vehicle,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a statement.

Nissan Leaf, the best-selling battery-electric vehicle, plays a warning sound automatically up to 18nph, but drivers can deactivate it.

The rules would apply to passenger cars and light trucks, as well as motorcycles, heavy-duty trucks and buses. No air-ride vehicles yet, but that’s just a matter of time. It’s one thing to have to worry about what’s coming at you at street level – and another whole thing to be concerned with what’s coming in from above.