The Deadly Silence of the Electric Car

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

After years of trying to make cars sound as if they were riding on air, engineers are considering how they might bring back some noise. They're trying to make some of them -- those silent hybrids -- more audible.

But how?

A team of engineers developing the Leaf, the forthcoming electric car from Nissan and a front-runner in the race for a mass-market electric car, have recently been presenting their ideas for artificial noises to government officials and focus groups.

Maybe Chime No. 22?

Melody No. 39?

Perhaps a futuristic whirring like the aircraft in "Blade Runner"?

As hybrids proliferate and major automakers such as Nissan and General Motors prepare to launch battery electric vehicles next year, some automakers are seeking to address concerns in the United States and Japan that the nearly noiseless vehicles may be so quiet that they pose a threat to pedestrians.

At a meeting earlier this month and another over the summer, Nissan presented the chime, the melody and a futuristic whir to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has recently gathered evidence that the vehicles may pose a safety risk.

Regulatory committees in the United States and Japan are also studying complaints about the cars, and Congress is weighing a measure requiring vehicles to issue "non-visual" warnings to pedestrians.

"We are studying potential artificial noises that can be added to the vehicle," said Scott Becker, a Nissan senior vice president.

But the nascent industry is divided over whether safety sounds should be added to the quiet cars and, if so, what those noises should be.

"Frankly, we've been working for 30 years to make cars quiet -- never thinking they could become too quiet," said Robert Strassburger, vice president for vehicle safety at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group that has been working to address the concerns. But now "those vehicles may be difficult to detect."

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