Volt Fire Investigation — Is It More Than Smoke?

The United States in 2010 recorded 184,500 vehicle fires, according to figures from the National Fire Protection Association — none known to be in electric vehicles. Now, three fires under simulated conditions in the Chevrolet Volt have prompted a federal safety investigation: yesterday, the New York Times headlined a story about the situation “A Setback for Electric Cars.”

Are the Volt fires a real cause for concern, a case of new stuff being scary, or something in between? In an article also on rmi.org, electric vehicle pioneer John Waters notes that problems spur improvement and learning, so good will come of the incident.

What happened?

In May, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration performed crash tests on the Volt, an electric car that also has a gasoline-powered generator to provide energy when the battery charge gets low. Three weeks after the test, the Volt caught fire, which NHTSA determined was caused by crash damage to the lithium ion battery.

The agency crash tested three more Volts in November, intentionally damaging the battery packs, producing smoke and sparks in one instance and a delayed fire in another. NHTSA then said it would conduct a formal safety defect investigation. In announcing the investigation, the agency said that it did not know of any real-life crashes of EVs that have led to fires and that Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in serious crashes have no cause for concern.

What’s at stake?

The Volt is a cutting-edge vehicle that, if it succeeds, burnishes General Motors’ image, helps EVs gain acceptance and boosts EV charging infrastructure. A serious safety flaw as electric cars battle for a consumer foothold threatens to taint EVs, which are critical to moving the U.S. transportation system off of oil. Reinventing Fire, Rocky Mountain Institute’s blueprint for a business-led transition from fossil fuels to efficient and clean energy by 2050 shows how electric vehicles, ultimately made from ultralight, ultrastrong materials, can provide radically improved efficiency without compromising performance and safety.

Where’s the fire?

Other tests on electric cars, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and by the European New Car Assessment Programme, have not resulted in fires.

“We’ve had more problems with conventional vehicles than any electrics or hybrids we’ve tested,” Russ Rader, vice president of communications for IIHS, told RMI. The insurance institute doesn’t leave gasoline in tanks for its crash tests “because of the risk of fire,” Rader said, but fills tanks with a substitute. When it detects leaks after crashes, vehicles earn an automatic “poor” rating.

The Volt and electric Nissan Leaf won the institute’s top ratings, as has the Toyota Prius hybrid, the only hybrid the institute has tested.

NHTSA, which has been criticized in the past for being slow to react to reports of defects, including in the Toyota acceleration case in late 2009 and early 2010, has among its duties the job of identifying dangerous vehicle defects. GM has pointed out that NHTSA did not discharge the power from the crashed Volt’s battery pack in May, which the automaker recommends after an accident, just as gasoline should be drained from a seriously damaged car. IIHS followed that protocol, Rader said.

Public relations

GM says the Volt is safe and has offered owners loaner cars until the investigation is complete. It had no immediate takers. Volt owners chatting about the situation on gm-volt.com forums express belief in the safety of their cars, of which 5,300 have been sold in the U.S. since they went on sale late last year.

Michael Omotoso, senior manager for powertrain forecasts, hybrid, electric vehicles and powertrain trends, at LMC Automotive in Michigan, said consumers should be no more concerned about lithium ion batteries than they are about a tank full of gasoline.

“I know that there have been laptop fires, but there are always flukes,” Omotoso said. “And the Li-ion batteries in cars are encased in strong material that makes damage less likely. The Volt, Leaf and other vehicles on the market with Li-ion batteries passed all the federal crash tests before they went on sale, so the recent incidents are not typical.”

In the end, he said, the investigation might lead to GM being required to add warning labels in Volts, similar to standard airbag warning labels, covering drainage and storage of the battery. That “would be useful for both the vehicle owner and rescue services in case of a serious crash,” he said.

As Chelsea Sexton, a longtime EV advocate and former head of the advocacy group Plug In America, told wired.com, “It’s appropriate to look into these things and develop new procedures as needed. It’s likely we will end up with new storage, towing, and body shop procedures. This doesn’t mean battery cars are inherently more dangerous, just different.”