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David Zax

A View from David Zax

The Chevy Volt Fire: Tempest in a Teapot

A single Chevy Volt fire does not a nationwide catastrophe make. Even so, it’s good that GM is taking extra precautions.

  • November 16, 2011

Last week, several outlets reported a piece of news that was frightening to supporters of electric vehicles. A Chevy Volt that had undergone a crash test had, weeks later, burst into flames. Now, federal safety regulators would be investigating lithium-ion batteries.

It was the kind of news that, taken out of context, could lead to all sorts of rumor mongering. Was the Chevy Volt the next Ford Pinto, some sort of deathtrap on wheels? Would this spell an end to electric cars, that great hope for a greener automotive strategy for the country and the world? Amidst the uncertainly, shares of G.M., which started selling the Volt a little under a year ago (about 5,000 models have been purchased), dipped by 1% on Friday, while the rest of the market posted gains of about 2%.

The news, though, was blown out of proportion. The bottom line is this: that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that “[b]ased on the available data, N.H.T.S.A. does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicle”; indeed, had the administration followed procedures to drain the battery of its charge following the crash test, the fire probably wouldn’t have happened at all. Based on the data out there, it would be irrational for consumers to change their minds about buying a Chevy Volt in the wake of this incident.

Here’s exactly what happened (ConsumerReports and others have a good breakdown). The NHTSA ran what’s called a “pole test,” designed to simulate a side crash by pushing the car into a pole at 20 mph. After that, they put the car on a rotisserie and spun it around like a roast chicken, to simulate the car rolling. The car performed well on the safety test, and was set out in a sort of graveyard for crash-tested cars.

What had happened, though, was that the crash had breeched coolant lines in the battery pack, which had then leaked to other parts of the battery. That coolant then crystallized in cold Wisconsin weather, which appears to have caused the battery to short out. Weeks later, the car erupted into flames. (MSNBC notes, though, that a “formal cause has not been announced by safety regulators.”)

How can we prevent this from ever happening again–especially, to prevent it happening outside a federal crash-test facility? GM says that it has a protocol for dealing with damaged cars: it revealed that it sends SWAT-style teams to the crash scenes, recovers the cars, and uses a giant machine to drain the vehicle of its charge. In the same way that you’d want to empty a traditional car of gas once it’s structurally compromised, you want to remove the charge from the battery of a damaged EV to mitigate risk.

One good thing that is coming from this incident is increased transparency and communication, and further safety measures. It’s wonderful that GM has a protocol to drain damaged batteries of their charge–but they hadn’t yet trained other people to do so. The company now has plans to train tow truck drivers, body shops, and salvage yards in EV safety, so that events like the one that happened in the NHTSA facility won’t befall others.

Ford famously dropped its embarrassing tagline for the Ford Pinto, following reports of exploding cars: “Pinto leaves you with that warm feeling.” But we’ve come a long way since 1977, and it looks like GM and the NHTSA are being proactive in helping ensure the only warm feeling the Volt gives its drivers is the satisfaction of having bought a more environmentally friendly vehicle.

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