Thoughts on GM Volt’s Recent “Rapid Thermal Expansion” Incident…

General Motors is on its way to becoming the premier automaker in all technology related to electric vehicle safety and reliability. The recent reporting and follow-up investigation of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) event involving a Chevy Volt (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) is the ideal catalyst for driving EV technology forward and our global understanding of safety, reliability, and cost in advanced vehicles.

It is reported that the battery of a GM Chevy Volt, damaged in a crash test, caught fire three weeks later and ignited several cars near the Volt (this all took place in a NHTSA facility). The good news here is that no human was hurt. The incident took place at a test facility where catastrophic situations are supposed to be generated. (For more on this topic see “Volt fire investigation — is it more than smoke?”)

Now, this single incident will motivate and drive some of the finest engineers in the world to become even more skilled and insightful in advancing the benefits lithium battery technology. From Newton to Edison to Dean Kamen, true inventors highlight their increased understanding of physical laws through “mistakes” as opposed to successes.

If you asked Dean Kamen (one of the greatest living inventors) to name an individual who knows more than most of the causes of “rapid thermal expansion” of lithium batteries, he would most likely mention my name. I arrived at Dean’s offices one day several years ago, greeted by three fire trucks, and smelled the familiar fragrance of burned lithium batteries wafting through the air.

Without disclosing the details, I can confidently state that the following six months of root cause failure investigation of my team’s lithium batteries taught me more about the behavior and control of high energy lithium-ion battery packs than all the previous years of robust failure testing and analysis on the battery systems.

The Chevy Volt incident will drive the highly competent engineers and scientists at GM to discover and quantify the peripheral behavior mechanisms of high-energy battery packs. These discoveries are not ones to avoid but to embrace as they will provide substantial value for GM and propel it to a global leadership position.

As my friend (Rocky Mountain Institute chief scientist) Amory Lovins once encouraged me in an email, “Pioneers get the arrows, settlers get the land.”

GM’s leadership in putting thousands of Chevy Volts on the road—all with no reported incidents—requires the company to embrace the unknown, resolve the failure modes, and capture market share with its robust understanding and intellectual property that will be gained by leading discovery. This is our classic American heritage and we should be championing our industrious companies forward in their global leadership positions.

Those who want to promote a “sky is falling” attitude on advanced automotive technology should break out their abacuses and go for it (but be careful of pinching your fingers with the deadly motions of those beads!). Does anyone want to debate the safety and reliability of sitting on top of 20-gallon gasoline reservoir, which has an energy density 65 times greater than lithium batteries?

The loss of the space shuttle Columbia was a historical event for our country — resulting in the loss of human lives. The failure was attributed to a loose piece of foam insulation, the size of a small briefcase, which damaged the shuttle’s thermal protection system.

Similar to NASA’s focus and leadership after this horrendous event, GM has the opportunity to show the world how safe and reliable lithium battery systems can be and create the intellectual property that will propel them to a global leadership position and the planet’s authority on advanced automotive technology.

John Waters, an entrepreneurial and business development professional, is president of Waters & Associates Consulting. He is an electric vehicle pioneer, having led development and production for General Motors of battery packs for the company’s first electric cars, the EV1 and Electric S-10. At Delphi Corp., he launched a lithium battery business and was responsible for the design, testing and production of multiple lithium battery products, including battery packs for the Segway. He launched Bright Automotive in 2008 after serving as Vice President of Transportation at Rocky Mountain Institute, a role in which he provided energy strategy for Fortune 100 companies including Alcoa, Ford and Wal-Mart.