Chevy Volt fire investigation: no delay to UK launch (exclusive)

Volt and sister car Vauxhall Ampera are safe and still on track, say makers

By Will Dron on December 7, 2011 8:41 AM

In the midst of an investigation into post crash-test electrical fires on the Chevy Volt in America, Chevrolet and Vauxhall in the UK have told TheChargingPoint.com that no delays to the UK launches are expected. It’s the strongest indication yet that the Volt and Ampera ‘extended range’ electric vehicles are not considered a danger to drivers by their manufacturers.

In November the American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (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 crash-test due to a ruptured coolant line to the battery pack. The NHTSA then tried to replicate the fire in similar side impact tests on three other vehicles, two of which did catch fire afterwards.

However, the NHTSA was clear that it was only concerned with battery-related fires following a crash. “Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern,” read the statement. However, many media reports have suggested that there is a fundamental problem with the Volt, and electric cars in general, despite achieving the highest scores possible for overall safety in Europe and the United States.

“The fundamental point we want to get across is that the Volt retains its five star safety record,” Chevrolet UK’s PR Manager Craig Cheetham told TheChargingPoint.com. “This is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction by the media. The NHTSA investigation reproduced one of the most severe accidents…if you’d been involved in that accident you are more likely to be safe in the Volt than many other cars. As with all new car launches we are working with the emergency services on safety procedures post accident.”

The Vauxhall/Opel Ampera getting the pole crash test treatment - EuroNCAP awarded the car a maximum five stars (photo: EuroNCAP)

“This is something we were expecting and have been looking at from the start,” adds Debbie Shields, Product and Technology PR Manager at Vauxhall. “It’s an issue with what happens post-crash and is not something we’re worried about for drivers. It’s more a concern for the emergency services, and we are creating a protocol for how they can deal with a battery after an accident. Part of that will be to make sure the battery pack is fully depowered immediately following a crash – that was not the case in the NHTSA tests.”

A severe side impact with a tree followed by a roll-over would mean fire at the point of the accident is far more likely when carrying around a flammable liquid such as petrol, Shields told us. Regardless, the car would be close to write-off before any resulting fire. “It’d be pretty much a gonner,” says Cheetham.

However, despite both companies saying they are on track for the UK launch at the moment, Cheetham confirmed there is still a small chance the date might need to be pushed back.

“If, following the NHTSA's preliminary findings in six to eight weeks’ time, it comes to light that an update is required in the manufacturing of the car then there may be a small delay,” says Cheetham. “But we’re really not expecting that to be the case – the emphasis of the investigation is on safe decommissioning of the battery packs after a severe accident, not on any safety concern for owners prior to that.”