WASHINGTON -- The government doesnt have a body count of pedestrians hit by hybrids and other quiet cars, but the vehicles pose a safety risk that officials are trying to get out in front of, a top federal regulator says.
This is a type of vehicle that is going to grow, in terms of the number on the road, and so will the risk, Ron Medford, senior associate administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told Automotive News today.
During a NHTSA public hearing today on dangers posed by quiet vehicles, Medford said the agency soon will prepare a comprehensive research plan. It will aim to measure the problem and identify possible remedies, he said.
Medford said he learned a lot from the hearing. It focused on hybrids, which run almost silently when they are in all-electric mode, usually at low speeds.
Jay Joseph, a senior regulatory manager for American Honda Motor Co. Inc. and the chairman of an SAE International subcommittee studying quiet cars, said his group is looking for technology-neutral solutions. The engineers panel has not concluded that making vehicles emit more sound is the only remedy, he said.
Sound standard sought
But groups that represent blind people are lobbying for a minimum sound standard that would require every vehicle to be audibly detectable to pedestrians.
The groups emphasized today that hybrid cars and other quiet vehicles are a threat to more than the 1.1 million legally blind Americans. Quiet vehicles also threaten children, cyclists and as many as 20 million Americans who are visually impaired but not legally blind, said Mark Richert and Deborah Kent Stein.
Richert is director of public policy for the American Foundation for the Blind. Kent Stein represents the National Federation of the Blind.
Richert said rapid growth in the population of older Americans, many with vision troubles, means the problem can only get worse.
Kent Stein called for sounds that mimic the noise made by traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines, so pedestrians can tell when vehicles are speeding up or slowing down.
Consensus may be difficult to achieve. NHTSA officials have said they dont want to worsen the problem of noise pollution.
Witnesses cite Prius
Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, contended that the real problem is excessive traffic noise, which he said masks the presence of hybrids and other vehicles.
Bob Wilson, an engineer from Huntsville, Ala., who was in the hearing room audience, told Automotive News the answer probably is wireless communication between pedestrians and drivers of quiet vehicles.
Hybrid drivers dont want to hit pedestrians, Wilson noted. He runs a company that is working on ways to rejuvenate the batteries of older hybrid cars. He complained that hybrid owners did not have a voice at todays hearing.
NHTSA Deputy Administrator Jim Ports responded that the agency is eager to hear from interested parties and is accepting written comments.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the Detroit 3, Toyota and six other automakers, favors research into ways to provide safe mobility for blind people and others, said Robert Strassburger, vice president for safety at the alliance.
We dont know whether adding sound to vehicles is the answer until that research occurs, he told Automotive News.
Chris Tinto, vice president for technical and regulatory affairs at Toyota Motor North America Inc., testified for the alliance at the hearing.
The Toyota Prius car is the most common hybrid on U.S. roads. It was often cited by witnesses for organizations representing blind people as a chief source of near-misses with pedestrians.