Will Hybrid and Electric Cars Cause Increased Massachusetts Motor Vehicle Accident Injuries?

File this new development under “Solve One Problem; Create Another.” For years, car manufacturers have tried to make their vehicles operate as quietly as possible. Helps keep noise pollution down, and helps maximize the sounds produced by the internal audio system, right? Those efforts usually revolved around minimizing engine noise in the only real engine most people had ever known – the internal combustion engine. But along the way, and somewhat unexpectedly, came the hybrid gas-electric engine, and with it as new phenomenon: A completely silent car when “on” but not moving, or moving at slow speeds (usually under 15 MPH.)

What’s the problem? When hybrid cars are “idling” at a stop sign, or moving but at speeds usually less than 15 MPH, they are powered by the hushed electric motor of the electric-gas hybrid. The gasoline-powered engine only kicks in when speeds exceed 15 MPH – at that point, the engine produces sound similar to most car engines you now hear. It doesn’t take a genius to see the trouble here: More motor vehicle accidents and injuries when hybrids are at stop signs, or moving slowly. Since a great majority of these types of motor vehicle accidents will happen when cars have been stopped at intersections or moving slowly in parking lots, a great many of them will likely involve pedestrians. By the way: Don’t be fooled into thinking that a pedestrian can’t be hurt that badly by a motor vehicle traveling at 15 MPH or less. Trust me: A person can be killed or seriously injured when hit by a car traveling at even 10 MPH. I’ve seen it before: Horrific injuries involving paralysis, even death.

This is no small problem. As hybrids proliferate and major auto manufacturers prepare to launch battery-electric only vehicles (even more silent than hybrids,) many see the growing injury threat to pedestrians. To deal with this unexpected problem, automotive engineers are researching how they might actually add some noise back into the hybrid models now being manufactured. But how to do this without re-creating the noise-polluting car engines that most people always hated? Nissan is now developing the “Leaf”, their version of an all-electric (vs. hybrid) car, and they’ve recently tested some of their ideas for “artificial” noises to officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as focus groups. Some possibilities? A Chime; a melody from a popular song; even possibly a futuristic “whirring.” There is also some talk that Congress may issue a measure requiring vehicles to produce “non-visual” warnings to pedestrians. Cars such as Tesla’s Roadster, Nissan’s Leaf and General Motors’ Volt, will depend entirely on battery electric power, and may be even quieter than existing hybrids.

Advocates at the National Federation of the Blind, which has understandably raised this safety issue with automakers and government officials, have suggested that electric cars make sounds similar to those of gas-powered cars. According to John Par, director of strategic initiatives for the group, “Society is conditioned to that sound..” Others are concerned that if a variety of different noises are allowed, electric cars could merely add another element of noise to the typical urban cacophony. Obviously, a universally workable solution to the problem isn’t easily found. But Fisker Karma, a luxury electric vehicle, will reportedly feature an integrated audio system that will both alert pedestrians as well as give the car a “distinctive audio signature” that will be “reflective of the car’s advanced technology,” according to a spokesman.

Surprisingly, spokespersons at Tesla say the company has no intention of incorporating “fake noises” into their vehicles. The company is known for manufacturing the completely electric Roadster, a $109,000 luxury product that is popular with eco-conscious celebrity customers. My opinion as a Boston car accident lawyer: Let a few catastrophic injury lawsuits be filed against them, let a few juries decide that their intentional decision to make these vehicles completely undetectable to the ear was negligent and irresponsible, and they’ll change their minds fast. As they should.

Producing an eco-conscious car is great. Doing it in a way that increases the likelihood of often serious injuries or deaths to innocent pedestrians (as Ford did in the 1970’s with the infamous Pinto,) is negligent and irresponsible.

Note to Tesla and other similarly-minded auto manufacturers: Wake up and hear the engine. (Even just a little.)