Apart from battery life, range, and recharge time, it appears that there's another downside to electric vehicles: they're too quiet. While that may sound like great news for folks living near an overpass, it's not so good for children, the elderly, and the hearing- or sight-impaired. As a result, the National Federation of the Blind in the U.S. asked automakers to set minimum sound standards for hybrid vehicles, and an organization in Japan submitted a similar request. So far, automakers seem to be responding in a variety of ways.
Nissan is experimenting with a combined system of noise and vibration, much like newer ambulances -- though presumably not as loud. For the company's new Leaf EV (pictured above), the company may add a high-pitched "science fiction sound" that would be audible in low-speed environments like parking lots, school zones, and crowded urban intersections. The noise would begin at start-up and shut off when the vehicle reaches 10 mph or so.
Other manufacturers are set to follow in Nissan's steps, and the range of possibilities is pretty interesting. Rumor has it that the Fisker Karma may use a sporty racecar sound, while Volkswagen is planning to use a sound very similar to that of the combustion engine.
Most intriguing of all is a Tokyo company called Data System Co., which makes a device that sells for roughly $140 and offers drivers a range of sound options for their hybrid or EV, including a cat's meow and a human voice that repeats "Excuse me". (How totally Japanese.) While a steady stream of "Sumimasens" would likely become annoying, the system does open the possibility for personalized sounds, much like ringtones for cellphones....
Although now that we think about it, that might be just as annoying -- quite possibly more so. Imagine a traffic jam full of cell phones that keep ringing and never get picked up. Yeesh. We'll take the Lotus "Safe and Sound" system, please.