By now, you have heard about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opening an investigation into the Chevy Volt to assess the danger of fire in the event of a crash. This is a crucial investigation, as it could affect the technology of electric cars in the future. It is critical that the finding are exact and accurate if the U.S. auto manufacturers are going to meet the fuel economy standards required by a different government agency, the Environmental Protection Agency.
If all started last spring when the Chevy Volt was crash-tested for side impact safety, in which the Volt was given five stars, the highest possible rating. In this test, the Volt was slammed directly in the side, then picked up and spun over to simulate a roll-over effect. Three weeks later, the car caught on fire and was destroyed by the flames, along with a couple of other cars that were sitting nearby. At odds here is the safety of the drivers, but also first responders, wrecker drivers, body shop personnel and others who come in contact with a Volt after a severe accident.
To complicate the Volt issue further, it is unique from the Nissan Leaf all-electric in that the Volt also has a gas-powered assist engine that allows you to keep going after the lithium-ion batteries run down. So now we have a combination of gas and electricity, two things that don’t go well together. To be fair, all of us drive around in gas-powered time bombs that can literally explode at any moment with a huge impact. There were in fact, 250,000 cases of car fires last year.
What is unclear, however, is whether the de-powering procedure General Motors recommends was followed by NHTSA. Also unclear is how well GM communicated the procedure to the public or the public safety officials.
The way it is supposed to work is GM, through the OnStar System, is immediately notified of a Chevy Volt crash. That sets off a process of immediate action. First, OnStar pings the Volt to get readings on the vehicle’s diagnostics. Then a Volt battery Team Leader contacts the owner and dispatches someone to power down the battery pack to prevent any fires or other issues related to the wreck. There have now been a total of three Volt fires as a result of testing, none have been reported with privately owned cars.
So the question is, was this procedure put into place with the three cars that were tested? I cannot at this time find that answer. If so, what went wrong? I know for sure GM spends a lot of money and time training fire departments across the country, but was NHTSA trained?
GM maintains the Volt is safe. At this point, I do not doubt that. I do not yet see any evidence that the car is more unsafe than a regular gas-powered car. I actually liked the Volt when I reviewed it over a year ago and would love for it to be a success. The more fuel-efficient choices we have, the better.
We cannot forget that just a couple of years ago, the media jumped on Toyota over sudden acceleration claims, and a decade ago everyone was convinced that the Ford Explorer was prone to rollovers. The media widely covered these stories, and ultimately it was found that the stories were not correct.
General Motors has offered to put Volt owners in loaner cars until this is straightened out or they’ll buy the car back. So far, few if any, have taken the offer. Let’s hope NHTSA and the government get this one right.