Safety updates announced for Volt and Ampera

Despite retained top crash safety ratings, General Motors moves to stamp out fire concerns

By Will Dron on January 5, 2012 10:10 PM

General Motors has today announced its safety updates for the extended range electric Chevrolet Volt and its UK-bound Vauxhall Ampera sister car in the wake of an investigation into possible battery fires after a severe accident.

In what GM calls a “customer satisfaction” exercise, modifications will be made to the vehicle structure and the battery coolant system, which would provide the battery system with additional protection in a severe side impact.

The “enhancements” will be made to approximately 12,400 existing Chevy Volts in the USA and will be incorporated on all vehicles destined for the UK.

American Volt owners today received a letter to let them know they will be contacted next month regarding the update to their car, and servicing begins in February. All cars still at dealers will be modified, either before or after they are sold.

The investigation that sparked things off

The move follows an investigation by the American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to assess the risk of fire in post-crash Chevy Volts after one caught fire three weeks after a crash-test. The NHTSA tried to replicate the fire in similar side impact 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 then overheated and sparked. However, the NHTSA was clear that it was only concerned with battery-related fires following a crash and the car retained its Top Safety Pick rating from the organisation. “Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern,” read the statement.

However, following negative media reports and customer speculation, GM offered to buy back vehicles or supply replacement hire cars for the 8,000 or so owners. Indicating Volt owners were on the whole not concerned by the risks, today Mark Reuss, President of GM North America confirmed that just 250 owners took them up on their offer.

“We’ve treated this process with the NHTSA with the highest level of urgency and seriousness from day one,” said Reuss in the web chat. “I want to thank Chevy Volt owners who’ve stood by us through this – it’s very gratifying to read [positive] comments posted on various sites. We’ll stop at nothing until our brands are recognised as customer service leaders – actions we’re taking on the Volt illustrate how we’ll get there.”

He added: “I trust the Volt with the most important thing in world to me – my family. And I’m confident in asking our customers & potential customers to do the same.”

“Peace of mind”

Reuss wasn’t able to speculate on whether or not today’s actions would lead to the NHTSA closing the ongoing enquiry, but was optimistic that it would have a positive impact. However, the main objective seems to be putting to bed any residual concerns among customers.

Following GM’s live webex, Vauxhall/Opel was swift in issuing a statement to European press.

“The Ampera has always been safe to drive,” said Karl-Friedrich Stracke, Opel’s Chief Executive Officer. "Now, our customers will have the additional peace of mind that the Ampera is equally as safe in the days and weeks following a severe crash.”