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Volt Battery Fires: Potential Crisis Defused?
Dec 2, 2011 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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Since the first reports of Volt fires in battery tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), we've held off from commenting while GM and the agency released chronologies and details. Now we weigh in with some big-picture comments, our quick technical analysis, links to Volt owner responses, and GM's message to owners. We encourage you to pass this on!

WHY FIRES HAVE BEEN A WORRY FOR YEARS. Since 2004, when we first started adding batteries to Priuses to show the benefits of plugging in, people throughout the industry have worried that a single incident by garage engineers or small conversion companies could set back progress. 2007-09 saw a handful of fires in parked vehicles. In every case, we and others were able to make clear that the batteries were not the source of the incidents.

Not really: there have been no fires in cars at the time of crashes. And it looks like owners. experts, and the media recognize that what happens to batteries AFTER crashes (or even more extreme test-crashes) is a separate issue.

Even the anti-EV demagogues have been a bit restrained. Could that be because so many reports now cite the frequency of fires in internal combustion vehicles? In 2010, all vehicle types in the US had 184,500 fires, mostly from liquid fuel tanks, resulting in 285 civilian deaths, 1,440 civilian injuries and $1 billion in direct property damage. Data from National Fire Protection Association report on all vehicle types­displayContent.asp?categoryID=953&itemID=29658 .

GM'S OFFER OF LOANER CARS TO 5,000 VOLT OWNERS WAS A SMART MOVE. And the response was telling: only a handful of people took them up. We're hearing about people who always wanted to drive a Corvette. Others who had signed up for GM's very favorable lease terms ($2,500 down + $350/month for three years) saw an opportunity to avoid going over their 36,000 mile allowance.

John Voelker reports that owners are "ecstatically happy with their cars." Consumer Reports in its annual survey asked, "Considering all factors (price, reliability, comfort, enjoyment, etc.), would you get this car if you had it to do all over again?" 93% of Volt owners responding said yes, making the Volt is the highest-rated car in CR's national survey.­news/­1070076_chevy-volt-electric-car-owners-most-satisfied-consumer-reports-says

OUR PERSONAL VIEWS: Before our analysis, what about Felix (VIN #9), with 13,106 miles on his Volt, and Ron (VIN #24), with 6,437 miles? After 344 days since taking delivery­photos-plugins-arrive.html , we count ourselves among the "ecstatically happy." We believe GM has built an amazing car. (At the same time, we have frequently described ways the cars could be even better -- mostly in usability issues!) Ron, having owned two BMWs, a Corvette, and the first converted Prius, considers the Volt by far the best of all.

And in the past week, the company has engaged pro-actively with multiple audiences, resisting defensiveness, embracing a transparent approach, acknowledging unknowns. Most recently, CEO Dan Ackerson said the company would buy back Volts from any ultra-unhappy owners, and suggested that findings from the NHTSA investigation could result in design and production changes in the batteries of the Volt and the Opel Ampera.

CAN BUILD. After closing its Hamtramck assembly line for a month in the summer to triple its capacity, it's gradually ramping up, selling 1,139 units in November to total 6,142 to date.

RON GREMBAN, CALCARS TECHNOLOGY LEAD ANALYZES THE FIRES: To me, the salient features of the Volt battery fires are:

The first Volt battery fire was in a vehicle that had been rendered completely inoperable by a severe NHTSA side-impact test -- during which the battery's coolant system sprung a leak -- followed by:

  • Turning the vehicle upside-down
  • Storing it for two weeks without draining either the coolant or the battery's charge

Both subsequent events occurred during further NHTSA tests specifically designed to replicate and understand the conditions that led to the first fire. The success of these tests is an indication not of danger but of a successful destructive testing program.

WOULD ALSO "TOTAL" THE VEHICLE, RENDERING IT FOREVER INOPERABLE. There have been NO incidents of Volt battery fires in operational Volts anywhere.

My favorite quotes: from a friend: "If you totally destroy your Volt, please discharge the battery before parking it in the garage for 10 days." And from automotive journalist Dan Carney: "The lesson here is to get out of a crashed car within a few days, and be sure to turn off the lights when exiting. A gasoline car might not be as obliging in providing an opportunity to climb out before combusting."­_news/­2011/­12/­01/­9142147-volt-is-drivers-favorite-topping-even-porsche

So you could say the investigations really answer the question, "How do we safely store a Volt battery after a serious vehicle-destroying crash?" Since gasoline vehicles could explode in such crashes, the gas tank MUST be drained.

If GM was negligent in any way, it was in not widely distributing the procedures for handling Li-ion battery packs at the time the first vehicles were sold. (Relevant authorities already know how to handle air-cooled NiMh hybrid battery packs.)

I would wager that, with the safety systems carmakers are incorporating, pure electric vehicle battery packs are far safer than gas tanks. However, since the Volt incorporates both propulsion systems, it also incorporates both possible sources of fire. The risks are small, though, and I do not think twice about keeping my Volt in my garage.

It would be a tragic waste if anti-EV forces succeeded in fueling this fire and intimidating people into retreating to a continued embrace of oil addiction.



Dear Volt Owner,

You may have seen the recent news articles regarding the NHTSA's (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) safety investigation of the Chevrolet Volt. I'm writing you today with more details that, I think, will put things in perspective and make you feel better about your Volt.

First and foremost, I want to assure you of one very important thing: the Volt is a safe car. The Volt continues to have a 5 star overall vehicle score for safety in NHTS's New Car Assessment Program. It was also given a Top Safety Pick Award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

There are good reasons the Volt is safe. Our team has put more than one million miles into making the Chevrolet Volt as safe as it is remarkable. After all, our families, neighbors, co-workers and friends are among those who own the cars we're tasked with designing, engineering and manufacturing.

Here are the facts behind the most recent news articles. In May, the NHTSA ran one of its most severe crash tests at a test facility in Wisconsin. The Volt battery was damaged and the coolant line was ruptured. Three weeks later, an electrical fire involving the test vehicle occurred.

NHSTA, working with GM engineers, has been running a program of severe impact and intrusion tests on Volt battery assemblies as part of its effort to understand and replicate the May 2011 incident. Thanksgiving night, NHTSA told us that one of the batteries tested was involved in an electrical fire similar to the one that took place in Wisconsin. As a result NHTSA has begun a preliminary investigation of Chevrolet Volt battery assemblies.

We are aware of no real world consumer incidents that have produced a similar result. These recent tests show a very rare set of circumstances: A severe impact resulting in the battery and coolant lines being compromised. And then the passing of a significant amount of time before an electrical fire may take place.

The Volt is as safe as conventional vehicles for its occupants -- before, during and immediately after a crash. When electrical energy is left in a battery after a severe crash it can be similar to leaving gasoline in a leaking fuel tank after severe damage. It's important to drain the energy from the battery after a crash that compromises the battery's integrity. GM and NHTSA's focus and research continue to be on battery performance, handling, storage and disposal after a crash.

Even though there have been no customer incidents, we're taking steps to ensure your peace of mind. If you are in any way uncomfortable driving your Volt as a result of this information, we want to make it right. We will provide you a GM vehicle to drive until this issue is resolved. Contact your Volt Advisor to make arrangements or to answer your questions. If you are not aware of your specific Volt Advisor, the contact information is[phone/email].

We take enormous pride in Volt and what it represents -- a new era of electric vehicles that can reduce dependence on gas, reduce air pollution, and more. On-going collaboration between the government, manufacturers and other stakeholders will enhance post crash protocols and accelerate acceptance of electric vehicles.

There is nothing more important to us at General Motors than the safety of our customers. We will continue to aid the NHTSA investigation in every way possible.

We stand 100% behind the quality and safety of the Chevrolet Volt -- now and always.

Thank you for being a Volt owner. By the way I am also a Volt owner, my daughter drives it every day and she will continue to do so.

Mark Reuss, President GM North America and Volt Owner (#1457)

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