If the mechanical prototype TheCarConnection.com recently drove was any indication, the 2011 Nissan LEAF will be an extremely quiet vehicle, free of the motor and drivetrain whine that accompanies some other electric cars.

That’s a good thing for the driver and passengers, but it invites a different concern: pedestrians. Preliminary data suggests that pedestrians are hit more often by hybrids than by non-hybrids, so the same concerns would likely apply to electric vehicles.

Mark Perry, Nissan North America's director for product planning and advanced technology, said that the company is working with several low-speed warning possibilities but hasn’t yet finalized a sound for the LEAF. “We will have a sound at launch.,” said Perry. “We just hope that the sound direction we go meets the emerging federal standard…we’re going to work together [with safety officials] to make sure we’re in alignment.”

Safe and sound

“Technically, between zero and about 20 kilometers an hour, that’s when we need the sound,” elaborated Perry. “After that point tire noise is loud enough.” People like the car to make one sort of noise, he explained, but that’s not always enough adequate to make sure that they can hear the car coming. “So we hope to find a happy medium.”

Chevy Volt

Chevy Volt

General Motors has taken a different approach with its 2011 Chevrolet Volt with its Pedestrian-Friendly Alert System, with drivers able to produce an alert system at will, sort of like the “flash-to-pass” feature on headlights. GM is working with the National Federation of the Blind and still developing the distinctive sound, which is not to be confused with a horn. The Volt’s system would also flash the headlights if the alert system is activated under 35 mph.

Reboots and ringtones?

Inside the Nissan LEAF there’s also going to be special attention paid to sounds. Because people have trouble adapting to silence on startup (and because of the potential safety concerns around this), the LEAF will offer a choice of five driver-selectable startup sounds, one of which Perry describes as “almost like the reboot sound you hear from your computer.”

In the future, we might see personalized greetings and programmable sounds upon startup but, says Perry, “We’re not at ringtone level of complexity yet.”


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