Chevy Volt in fire investigation

Official US Government tests uncover potential safety issue

By Gavin Conway on November 28, 2011 5:25 PM

The American agency responsible for enforcing safety standards for vehicles has announced that it will open a formal investigation into the risk of fire in Chevrolet Volts involved in serious accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, made the announcement following recent tests at its own facilities that resulted in Volt battery pack fires.

The Volt will go on sale in the UK early next year, alongside the Vauxhall Ampera, its near identical sibling.

This latest development follows on from the NHTSA crash test of a Volt last May, which was intended to appraise the car’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. During that test, the Volt’s battery was damaged and the coolant line was ruptured. A full three weeks later a fire broke out in the vehicle – the agency then concluded that damage to the Volt’s lithium-ion battery during the crash test led to the fire. At the time, General Motors, makers of the Volt, said that the battery should have been drained after the crash test, leading the NHTSA to consider a requirement that all EVs have their batteries drained after a major crash. No final decision has been made, but the complexity of implementing such a rule makes it an unlikely option.

The three recent tests of the Volt’s battery pack were part of an attempt to better understand the problem. In each test, the battery was impacted and rotated to simulate a real-world, side-impact collision with a narrow object such as a telephone pole, followed by a rollover.

The first test didn’t result in a fire and, at first, neither did the second test. However, about a week later the battery in the second test did catch fire. But when the third test was conducted, the battery began to emit sparks and smoke shortly after it had been rotated – the NHTSA is still conducting forensic analysis to determine the cause of all incidents.

The NHTSA says it is too soon to say whether the investigation will lead to a recall of Volts (that would obviously be a PR disaster for GM). And the NHTSA is also consulting about fire risks with all manufacturers producing EVs, not just GM. It is also keen to stress that it isn’t aware of any real-world crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or any other vehicles with lithium-ion batteries. And crucially, it stresses that Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash “do not have reason for concern.”

In similar crash tests, the Nissan LEAF had no such issues with batteries.

A bit of perspective here would be useful, too. While the anti-EV brigade are jumping all over the Volt story as yet more evidence that electric cars are a bad idea, it might be worth pointing out that as fire risks go, driving around with 20 gallons of extremely flammable fluid sloshing around in a tank has to be top of the list…