Sparks fly at Chevy Volt fire safety hearing

GM boss tells committee, “We did not engineer Volt as a political punching bag”

By Will Dron on January 26, 2012 12:42 PM

Sparks flew yesterday at the US hearing over the Chevrolet Volt electric car post-crash fires entitled, “Volt Vehicle Fire: What Did NHTSA Know and When Did They Know It?” Being questioned were GM CEO Dan Akerson, the NHTSA's David Strickland and John German, Program Director at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

The hearing’s primary function was to establish why the American National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) took more than three months to make an official announcement about a post-crash fire on the Chevy Volt (a full timeline of events published exclusively below goes some way to answering that).

“Political punching bag”

However, in what was clearly a political shooting match, split by party, the validity of electric vehicles in general was called into question, with the amount of influence the Obama administration had on the affair also under the spotlight.

Obama had approved the bailing out of General Motors, owner of Chevrolet, back in 2008 and the Volt was the flagship vehicle intended to reverse the company’s fortunes. If the Volt fails, American taxpayers’ dollars will have been wasted and Obama will score negative points. The Volt "is a ‘halo’ car, not so much for GM, but for this administration," said Republican Mike Kelly, a vocal opponent of the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles.

In his opening address to the Committee (see full transcript below), General Motors’ Chairman and CEO Daniel Akerson highlighted the sorry state of affairs. “Volt is among the safest cars on the road, earning 5 Stars for occupant safety (with the NHTSA) and a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is one thing we did not engineer. Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features, we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag. And that, sadly, is what it’s become.”

Akerson leaves the hearing in his own Chevy Volt, which he purchased from the 250 Volts returned by concerned customers. 8,000 Volts have been sold so far. | Photo: General Motors

Committee member Dennis Kucinich (Dem) later asked Akerson whether the Obama administration ever had influence over the GM board’s decisions. Akerson replied, “Absolutely not.”

NHTSA under fire

Also in the hot seat was David Strickland, NHTSA Administrator, who was arguably put under the most intense scrutiny. Committee chairman, Jim Jordan of Ohio (Rep), said, “You wait six months before you start an investigation, and two weeks after…the secretary says it’s fine, and you think that’s normal?”

Strickland pointed out that it took weeks to establish the cause of the fire and then further weeks of testing to reproduce it. Only after that was it possible to begin an investigation.

"It is irresponsible, and frankly illegal, for us to tell the public there is something wrong with the car if we don’t know what it is." David Strickland, NHTSA Administrator

“It is irresponsible, and frankly illegal, for us to tell the public there is something wrong with the car if we don’t know what it is,” Strickland retorted. “I don’t disclose to the public anything we find that we don’t have proof is a risk to safety.”

Strickland said the NHTSA was still developing protocols for how to deal with electric vehicles after a crash, a comment Republican Darrell Issa did not take kindly to. "How dare you tell us you're still developing protocols when the president is sitting in an electric car," Issa said. "Your administration is not up to speed to maintain safety in an electric age."

The Chevy Volt was crash tested then left by the side of a road with other vehicles, ready for scrapping. Three weeks later, the fire started. It was unclear what had first caused the fire, so a full investigation was launched. Once the Volt was identified as the source of the fire, it was stripped and further investigations were conducted.

Strickland was also quizzed over how much influence the Obama administration and GM had on the investigations, and whether or not there had been an instruction to hush up the Volt fires.

“The question is whether NHTSA treated GM with kid gloves," said Kucinich. "Did you pull any punches with GM because they're taxpayer subsidized?"

"We pulled no punches," replied Strickland. “At no time was there any notion of any other part of government coming to me saying we should do nothing."

The Volt is safe (and so are other electric vehicles)

Much of the hearing also focussed on the general safety of the Volt, despite the car’s retained five-star safety record in America and Europe. Republican Kelly questioned the safety of the Volt’s high voltage battery pack by putting on the three layers of gloves required for assembly workers at the Chevrolet Volt assembly plant in Detroit.

John German, Program Director at the International Council on Clean Transportation and automotive engineer of some renown, later delivered an emphatic response to any remaining safety concerns.

Going further than the NHTSA, which has stated there is no more risk associated with electric vehicles compared to gasoline vehicles, German declared, “Gasoline vehicles have a far higher risk than lithium ion electric vehicles. Electric vehicle batteries are much safer.”

"Gasoline vehicles have a far higher risk than lithium ion electric vehicles." John German, International Council on Clean Transportation

German also stated that the circumstances of the Volt fires were highly unusual. The fires had occurred because the battery pack’s casing had been pierced, coolant pipes had been severed, and coolant had subsequently leaked into the battery packs causing a short – something extremely unlikely to occur in real world situations

The committee was told that the real issue was how emergency services deal with electric vehicles post-crash. This involves isolating the power supply from the battery pack, then ‘depowering’ – basically draining the charge. Doing so ensures no risk of electrocution or fire.

During the hearing, Akerson said that, since creating the Volt, GM had trained more than 15,000 people on the new safety protocols. However, German pointed out this is not new technology – the first Honda and Toyota hybrid cars also had batteries with enough power to cause death, and emergency services should now be entirely familiar with dealing with such vehicles.

Despite this resounding defence of the Volt’s safety, in January General Motors announced a number of safety enhancements for the car that help ensure the battery pack is not intruded upon, including strengthening of the battery casing.

The Chevy Volt and its sister car, the Vauxhall Ampera, are now available to order in the UK. Click here for Volt info and here for Ampera info.

Timeline of events (as pulled together by

20 April – 11 May 2011: three NHTSA crash tests conducted on Chevy Volt (two side pole and one frontal). One vehicle shows signs of minor battery casing damage but there is no coolant leak. Other car’s batteries show no sign of battery damage.

12 May 2011: A new Volt is subjected to a side pole impact test* followed by a rollover test** at MGA Research facility in Wisconsin. Vehicle data is recorded and car is moved to a storage area with three other cars and left untouched.

5 June 2011: Based on crash test data from all four cars, Volt receives 5-star safety rating from NHTSA. It follows a Top Safety pick rating from the IIHS.

6 June 2011: Vehicle fire is noticed by personnel at MGA Research and NHTSA is informed. At this stage it is not known which car caused the fire.

13-14 June 2011: Forensic tests conducted on burned out cars.

July 2011: Preliminary findings reveal cause of fire was the Volt. Volt shipped to NHTSA Vehicle Research Center in Ohio for further examination.

21 September 2011: NHTSA performs another side pole impact test at MGA facility. There was no intrusion on battery pack and no post impact fire. Vehicle is observed for three weeks.

Mid November 2011: The three undamaged batteries from the April/ May tests are recovered and subjected to impact testing and rotation at General Testing Laboratories (GTL) in Virginia. The battery coolant system is deliberately ruptured and coolant allowed to leak in. It is found that the battery coolant can cause an electrical shorts. One battery catches fires, inadvertently destroying one other. Third battery sparks and flames.

26 November 2011: NHTSA announces it is opening an investigation into the fires and begins working with the National Fire Protection Association on how to deal with lithium ion battery-powered vehicles post-crash.

1 December 2011: GM offers to buy back Chevy Volts or provide temporary replacements for concerned customers.

Early December 2011: NHTSA conducts separate tests on three new battery packs. One battery pack catches fire six days after impact.

22 December 2011: GM fits a proposed structural enhancement for the battery pack under NHTSA supervision and vehicle is side impact-tested at MGA facility. There is no battery pack intrusion and no coolant leak. Vehicle is monitored for three weeks and there is no resulting fire.

5 January 2012: GM announces safety enhancements for Chevy Volt in a customer satisfaction initiative. Customers informed that the Volt has retained its five star safety rating from the NHTSA.

25 January 2012: Committee on Oversight & Government Reform hearing "Volt Vehicle Fire: What Did NHTSA Know and When Did They Know It?" to determine why it took so long for news of the fires to become public knowledge.

* During the test, a pole impacted and deformed the sill plate under the driver's door at a location where there is a structural member. The lateral member displaced inward, pierced the high voltage battery enclosure and battery, and caused a battery coolant leak.
** The rollover test consists of four 90-degree rotate-and-hold movements about the vehicle's longitudinal axis

Statement from Dan Akerson, General Motors Chairman and CEO to the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform

Good morning and thank you Chairman Jordan and Ranking Members Cummings and Kucinich. I welcome the opportunity to testify today and stand behind a car that all of us at GM are proud of.

Please allow me to start with some Volt history:

GM unveiled the Volt concept at the January 2007 Detroit Auto Show. In June of 2008, the “old GM’s” Board of Directors approved the Volt project for production well before the bankruptcy and infusion of government funds.

The battery story goes back much farther to the early 1990s with GM’s extensive work on the EV1.

Drawing on that experience, we engineered the Volt to be a winner on the road and in customers' hearts.

Today, I'm proud to say the Volt is performing exactly as we engineered it...

...In its first year, Volt garnered the Triple Crown of industry awards: Motor Trend Car of the Year; Automobile Magazine's Automobile of the Year; and, North American Car of the Year;

...Volt is among the safest cars on the road – earning 5 Stars for occupant safety and a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety;

...And, 93 percent of Volt owners report the highest customer satisfaction with their car -- more than any other vehicle and the highest ever recorded in the industry.

Beyond the accolades, the Volt's importance to GM and our country's long term prospects is far reaching. We engineered Volt to be the only EV that you can drive across town or across the country without fear of being stranded when the battery power is drained.

You can go 35 miles, and in some cases much more, on a single charge... which for 80 percent of American drivers is their total driving range.

After that, a small gas engine extends your range to 375 miles before you have to recharge or re-fill.

But, if the Volt message boards are any indication, there's some real one-upmanship going on out there – with customers reporting going months and thousands of miles without stopping once at a gas pump.

No other current EV can do this or 'generate' that much passion with its drivers.

We engineered Volt to give drivers a choice— to use energy produced in the United States rather than oil from places that may not always put America’s best interests first.

And, we engineered Volt to show the world what great vehicles we make at General Motors.

Unfortunately, there is one thing we did not engineer. Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features -- we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag.

And that, sadly, is what it’s become.

For all of the loose talk about fires, we are here today because tests by regulators resulted in battery fires under lab conditions that no driver would experience in the real world. In fact, Volt customers have driven over 25 million miles without a single, similar incident.

In one test, the fire occurred seven days after a simulated crash. In another, it took three weeks after the test. Not three minutes. Not three hours. Not three days. Three weeks. Based on those test results, did we think there was an imminent safety risk? No.

Or, as one of our customers put it: if they couldn’t cut him out of the vehicle in two or three weeks, he had a bigger problem to worry about.

However, given those test results, GM had a choice on how we would react. It was an easy call.

We put our customers first. We moved fast and with great transparency to engineer a solution.

We contacted every Volt owner and offered them a loaner car until the issue was settled. And if that wasn’t enough, we offered to buy the car back.

We assembled a team of engineers who worked non-stop to develop a modest enhancement to the battery system to address the issue.

We’ll begin adding the enhancement on the line and in customers’ cars in a few weeks.

And in doing so, we took a 5-star rated vehicle and made it even safer.

Nonetheless, these recent events have cast an undeserved, damaging light on a promising new American technology that we are exporting around the world, right from Detroit.

As the Wall Street Journal wrote in its Volt review: We should suspend our rancour and savour a little American pride. A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet.

The Volt is safe. It's a marvellous machine. It represents so much of what is right about General Motors and, frankly, about American ingenuity and manufacturing.

I look forward to taking your questions.

Thank you