The Prius Problem

This past July an acquaintance of mine, Scot Reuter, was riding his bike down the streets of Minneapolis, as he often does. He doesn’t even own a car.

After quite some time of relying on his bike as his main mode of transport, he had become very good at navigating the busy avenues’ many obstacles—bumpy roads, pedestrians, and, of course, other vehicles. But as Scot was traveling on this particular summer day as he usually did, he was thrown from his bike onto the cold blacktop, completely bewildered oas to what had just happened.

He would soon realize that he had been hit from behind by a Toyota Prius hybrid—a car he had no chance of hearing behind him.

While most conventional vehicles have gasoline engines that produce a fair amount of noise as they drive down the road, the Prius that hit Scot was almost completely silent.

The reason for this silence lies in the design. On the highway, a traditional noisy gasoline engines power hybrids, but at slower speeds, a much quieter electrical motor propels the vehicle.

While this makes for a comfortable ride for occupants, the car’s silence can be dangerous for pedestrians.

The Prius that hit Scot could have cost him much more than the broken arm, bruises, and scrapes he suffered.

And his story is not unique.

There have been many complaints of this very same problem across the country.
Last year, according to a government vehicle safety report, hybrids were twice as likely to be involved in pedestrian crashes than vehicles with conventional engines.

The problem isn’t going unnoticed by automakers either.

Toyota Motor Corp., maker of the top-selling Prius, has responded to this safety concern by developing a new device to help warn unsuspecting pedestrians the car is coming.

The fix comes from a retrofitted mechanism inside the engine that “emits a synthesized sound of an electric motor to alert pedestrians and others to the presence of a quiet vehicle,” according to the company’s press release.

Right now the device is only for sale in Japan where pedestrian injuries are reported at an even higher rate, but the component will most likely make its way into U.S. markets too.

Toyota says that the goal is to alert rather than annoy. Its pitch fluctuates depending on how fast the vehicle is going, operating up to speeds of 16mph. The device costs less than $150 plus installation charges, but is only available for third-generation Prius’ models.

But one can only hope that Prius owners will purchase the feature once it is on sale.

I suspect most of them probably won’t take the extra time and money to purchase the device and crashes similar to Scot’s will continue to occur.

While vehicles will probably always pose some threats to occupants and pedestrians alike, this equipment needs to be standard on all hybrid vehicles so that preventable accidents like Scots don’t happen anymore.

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