Chevy Volt fire investigation closed: car declared safe

NHTSA says electric vehicles not at greater risk than petrol cars

By Will Dron on January 23, 2012 2:58 PM

The Chevrolet Volt and other electric vehicles do not pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. That is the conclusion of the American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) after it closed its two-month safety defect investigation into the extended-range electric Volt.

The saga started in November, when the NHTSA announced it was opening a formal safety defect investigation to assess the risk of fire in post-crash Chevy Volts, after one caught fire three weeks after a severe crash test. The NHTSA then tried to replicate the fire in similar side impact rollover tests on three other vehicles, two of which did catch fire afterwards.

The cause was traced to a ruptured coolant line to the battery pack, which led the battery to overheat and spark. The solution, it turned out, was fairly simple – drain the battery pack immediately after a crash; something the emergency services are already being trained to do.

Despite the standard Volt retaining its five star safety scores in America and the UK – this was a potential problem only after a severe accident, remember – Chevrolet owner GM moved to dispel any fears by announcing it will fit additional structural enhancements to new and existing Volts. Friday’s announcement by the NHTSA should finally put the matter to bed.

No discernable defect trend

The NHTSA statement said the agency had concluded: “no discernible defect trend exists and that the vehicle modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts”.

The statement went on: “Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe that Chevy Volts or other electric vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. Generally all vehicles have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash. However, electric vehicles have specific attributes that should be made clear to consumers, the emergency response community, and tow truck operators and storage facilities.

“Recognizing these considerations, NHTSA has developed interim guidance — with the assistance of the National Fire Protection Association, the Department of Energy, and others — to increase awareness and identify appropriate safety measures for these groups.”

Good news for UK-reservation holders

The Vauxhall Ampera, sister car to the Volt, will have Volt's safety updates included when the first customer vehicles arrive on our shores

The NHTSA ruling will be welcome news to Chevrolet UK, which is now taking orders for the car, and Vauxhall, which is at the same time launching a rebadged and restyled version called the Ampera. Neither car has been delayed as a result of the investigation.

All UK-bound Volts and Amperas will come complete with the safety enhancements and our own emergency services are also being fully trained in how to deal with the cars post-crash, meaning the mangled wreck shouldn’t be a fire hazard.