Automakers that spend hundreds of millions developing electric and hybrid cars have an unexpected problem: The government says the vehicles are too quiet.
It seems like a strange problem to have until a hybrid running on only electric power glides past while making a turn at an intersection. Because the traditional gasoline or diesel engine is shut off at low speeds there's virtually no sound to alert a pedestrian to an oncoming vehicle.
That could be fatal to a sight-impaired person stepping off the curb.
The National Highway Traffic Administration proposes minimum sound standards for hybrid and electric vehicles that create noise that can be heard above ambient street noise.
Fourteen possible warning sounds can be heard at www.nhtsa.gov/SampleSounds.
NHTSA estimates adding warning noise to all-electric and hybrid vehicles could prevent 2,800 pedestrian and bicycle accidents annually.
"This proposal will help keep everyone using our nation's streets and roadways safer, whether they are motorists, bicyclists or pedestrians, and especially the blind and visually impaired," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010 required all vehicles traveling less than 18 mph to make a certain amount of noise to alert pedestrians. (Think about how those backup chimes on delivery and sanitation trucks may have saved your bacon as you crossed an alley or driveway and you get the idea.)
Hybrids and electrics would also have to produce a warning sound in reverse. Going forward the sound would change volume and increase to a higher pitch as the vehicle accelerated or a lower pitch as it decelerated.
Above 18 mph the vehicles make enough noise to be heard by passersby. NHTSA estimates the cost of a speaker system and digital processor at $30 to $35 per vehicle.
"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 and make a decision about whether it is safe to cross the street," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said.
The Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid already makes an electronic whir at speeds up to 25 mph that meets the proposed Transportation Department standard, the Los Angeles Times said.
CES attracting more automakers, brave new cars
The 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas attracted seven of the top 10 auto companies showing how new technologies are helping drivers when they get behind the wheel.
Not that long ago auto electronics exhibits consisted mostly of in-vehicle cellphone/GPS connectivity, infotainment systems replacing CD/AM-FM/satellite radio head units and high-end customized sound systems. But in-vehicle technologies now range from backup cameras, self-parking and lane-departure warning to forward collision avoidance and prevention that can either warn a driver or put on the brakes electronically to prevent a rear-end crash.
GM, Ford, Chrysler, Audi, Hyundai, Kia and Subaru were all at the show. About 15 percent of U.S. households own at least one vehicle with a communications/entertainment system, said the Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on the annual electronics extravaganza.
Audi, the luxury brand of Germany's VW, said it received the second-ever license from the state of Nevada to operate a self-driving car on public roads. Audi is one of several carmakers that have developed autonomous driving systems similar to Google's auto-piloted self-driving car.
An Audi TTS recently completed a 12.42-mile climb up Pikes Peak in Colorado negotiating 156 turns, and Toyota's Lexus showed a laser, stereo hi-def camera, infra-red and radar equipped self-driving 2013 Lexus LS 600h L sedan that can detect changing traffic lights and objects up to 490 feet away.
Lexus says Toyota's Advance Active Safety Research Vehicle is being developed to save lives by increasing traffic safety and not to eliminate the driver entirely.
"For Toyota and Lexus, a driverless car is just part of the story," said Mark Templin, Toyota group vice president and general manager of the Lexus Division at a news conference at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. "Our vision is a car equipped with an intelligent, always attentive co-pilot whose skills contribute to safer driving."
"Our goal is a system that constantly perceives, processes and responds to its surroundings, that scans the movement of objects around it, identifies a green light from a red light, and measures the trajectory, roll, pitch and yaw of the vehicle as it steers, accelerates and brakes along the most efficient route to its programmed destination," he said. "An array of equipment processes data, formulates decisions and enacts by-wire responses."
It was Lexus's first-ever event at CES.
Toyota hits bumps on way to the future
As Lexus showed its "Integrated Safety Management Concept at the Consumer Electronics Show a review by The Detroit News noted the Japanese automaker led in recalls for the third time in four years.
Toyota recalled 5.3 million vehicles for various reasons in 2012 -- a year during which the seven largest automakers recalled 13.5 million vehicles.
A total of 16.2 million cars, trucks, motorcycles and RVs were called back last year -- up 4.5 percent from 2011.
In 2004, auto companies recalled a whopping 30.8 million vehicles, the newspaper said.
A sportier Dodge Dart
Chrysler plans to expand the lineup of Dodge Dart compacts unveiling a more powerful Dart GT at the North American International Show in Detroit.
The 2013 GT, built at Chrysler's Belvidere Assembly Plant in Illinois, will sport a 184-hp, 2.4-liter engine with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, sports-tuned suspension, frequency sensing damping shocks, 18-inch aluminum wheels and Nappa leather seats.
The GT joins a lineup including the Dart SE, Rallye, Aero and Limited.
"The new Dodge Dart GT embodies the best attributes that compact car buyers are looking for, including outstanding style, performance, technology and value," Dodge President Reid Bigland said in a release.
The Dodge GT will be available in the second quarter of 2013 at a starting price of $20,995.