Japan Studies Noisier Hybrids to Protect Blind

Associated Press + More

YURI KAGEYAMA,
AP Business Writer

TOKYO—An appeal of a hybrid or electric car is its super-quiet drive. But worries are growing blind people may be endangered by their silence.

The Japanese government has set up a panel with automakers, organizations for the blind and consumers groups to come up with a solution, which could have such vehicles emitting what sounds like engine noise or musical sounds like a cell-phone ring-tone, officials said Tuesday.

A legal change would be needed to equip the vehicles with such special features.

"We are still listening to different opinions and trying to figure out the best solution," said Yuta Kaga, spokesman for Toyota Motor Corp., which makes the hit gas-electric Prius hybrid and is represented on the panel.

The panel, which began meeting in July, plans to have a proposal by the end of the year, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

It was set up partly in response to worries voiced by the blind. The Japan Federation of the Blind, which submitted a request in June, is asking the government to instruct hybrid-makers to make the vehicles safer for the blind.

An informal survey of 52 blind people carried out by the group last year found that more than half of the respondents said they were terrified of hybrids because they were so quiet, although none reported being in an accident.

The Yomiuri, Japan's biggest newspaper reported Tuesday that such measures may be available on Toyota cars going on sale in 2010, possibly with radar to sense nearby pedestrians and making noise only at slow speeds.

Such measures are more useful for Japan's crowded streets than the U.S. and other nations where cases of pedestrians getting hit by a car are fewer.

Sales of hybrids are booming in Japan because of government incentives and tax breaks to encourage green car sales.

Toyota's Prius has been the top-selling car in Japan for four months straight. Honda Motor Co.'s Insight hybrid is also selling well, and hybrid models are expected to keep growing.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. began selling the i-MiEV electric car this year, and other makers are planning electric vehicles.