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October 16, 2021

Are hybrid cars somehow too quiet to be safe?

For years, environmentalists have been tripping over themselves to heap praise on hybrid cars and their drivers.

After all, the vehicles are less polluting, conserve a fraction of the fuel and are whisper quiet. It’s like they’re not even on the road.

But, are the cars too quiet?

That appears to be the issue now as safety experts are trying to goad manufacturers into supplying a “digitally enhanced vroom” sound on hybrids so people can better hear them coming.

According to the New York Times, hybrids are so hushed at their current noise level, they pose a serious threat to pedestrians, children and the elderly.

So apparently, in response, some manufacturers have begun working with Hollywood special-effects studios to customize a faux engine noise that will be pumped from speakers in the bumper of the car.

No, really. Serious.

The Fisker Karma, an $87,900 plug-in hybrid coming out next year, will feature a fake engine sound described as “a cross between a starship and a Formula One car.”

Buyers may even be able to choose their own sound from a list provided, sort of like a car ring-tone, a BMW spokeswoman tells the Times.

The idea sounds preposterous on the surface (it was a pretty impressive achievement to be able to make a car silent in the first place), no doubt, but it turns out there might be some merit to the modifications.

A University of California/National Federation of the Blind study has found people simply can’t hear hybrids coming until they’re dangerously close.

“People listening in a lab could correctly detect a gas-powered car’s approach when it was 28 feet away,” quotes the Times, “but could not hear the arrival of a hybrid operating in silent battery mode until it was only seven feet away.”

What do you think? Is pumping a fake engine noise from a silent hybrid as ridiculous as it seems?

By Jason Buckland, MSN Money



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

James HaversJames Havers

James is the senior editor of MSN Money living in Toronto. He has worked for the Nikkei Shimbun (Tokyo),,, Canadian Business and other publications. Havers turned to journalism after teaching overseas.

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...