Lotus Makes Hybrids Sound Like Real Cars

Hybrids are the greatest. They pollute less and consume less than regular cars and save you boatloads of money at the pump. But activists and legislators consider them silent killers that prey on blind people who never hear 'em coming.

Full Hybrids like the ubiquitous Toyota Prius run only on electricity at low speeds, emitting no more than a whine around town. That's great for lowering noise-vibration harshness and making drivers feel like George Jetson, but it's a big problem for the blind -- and pedestrians, and cyclists, and people who simply don't pay attention -- who rely on the familiar rumble of internal combustion to know what's coming down the pike.

The engineers at Lotus, a company way into green these days, have a solution.

Lotus took a bone-stock Prius and outfitted it with a waterproof speaker near the radiator that blares simulated yet realistic engine sounds to let pedestrians -- those who don't have earbuds crammed into their ears, anyway -- know to watch out. "Our advanced external sound synthesis technology increases pedestrian safety, while retaining the car's environmental benefits," says Mike Kimberley, CEO of Group Lotus.

The system uses a speed sensor on the accelerator to control the vroom-vroom sound. You only hear it as the car approaches, and it cuts out entirely when the car's engine takes over at higher speeds. It's all automated and Lotus says the driver hears almost nothing.

Considering all of the emerging vehicle technology out there, Lotus could have sunk its R&D dollars into just about anything. We've gotta ask what prompted this particular investment -- which by the way, comes on the heels of a similar gadget created by two Stanford University students. It's not as if there's been a lot of Priuses (Priora?) mowing down the blind.

Maybe it's because lawmakers decided in April that the threat of just such an epidemic is so great Something Must Be Done. If the legislation pending before Congress passes, the Transportation Department will spend two years studying the problem before developing safety standards. Automakers would have two years after that to comply, giving Lotus a big market for its product.

"We hope that legislators introduce minimum noise requirements for vehicles to encourage the adoption of technologies, such as ours, which will ultimately increase pedestrian safety," Kimberley says.

Lotus is collaborating with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association to develop their system. We want ours to sound like the Cosworth engine in the Lotus 49.