News / USA

NHTSA Opens Probe into Chevrolet Volt Fire

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Kane Farabaugh

Federal safety officials are looking into battery-related fires in General Motors' new electric-powered Chevrolet Volt automobile.  The fires occurred after the officials crash-tested the vehicle. 

One of the first owners of the Chevrolet Volt in the Midwest state of Illinois was Cars.com, which purchased the new, $40,000 electric car to test its performance.

“We were among the first buyers in the country even though Chicago is not a launch market, and we drove them through the winter, tested them out, and actually had them through the summer as well, and gotten a pretty good feel for them," he said.

Cars.com executive editor Joe Wiesenfelder says the company also has the distinction of being one of the first owners to crash the Volt. “There was a lot of interest around that.  It was one of the first airbag deployments in a Volt out on the road, so we are pioneers in that regard," he said.

Fully repaired, the car was back on the road several weeks later.  Wiesenfelder says there have not been any problems since.

But that is not the case with a Chevrolet Volt crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “The Volt that was crashed by NHSTA led to a five-star crash rating.  It was three weeks later that the battery caught fire," he said.

Wiesenfelder says GM believes the solution to the problem is to discharge the lithium-ion battery after a collision.  But he says it's been hard to learn more about the extent of the problem. “NHTSA also is not discussing it.  We asked today, “Are they also testing batteries from other cars like the [Nissan] Leaf,” they will not say, they will not say," he said.

The lack of information is fueling speculation about the safety of battery-powered vehicles.  Wiesenfelder says that uncertainty could hurt the already underperforming sales of the Chevrolet Volt.

“You hear “fire” and “car” of course, that  is bad, but this testing could prove anything.  We are not going to jump to conclusions on safety or lack of safety.  But on the other hand, GM is trying to do everything right, trying to look good, saying they are a different company than they used to be, but by doing that, offering loaner cars and offering to buy the cars back, they actually I think make it seem like a larger problem than it might be," he said.

Wiesenfelder points out there is no evidence to suggest the Volt, or any current electric powered vehicle, is any less safe than one powered by a combustion engine.  Argonne National Laboratory’s Transportation Research Director Don Hillebrand agrees. “Electrics in general tend to be [safer], have fewer failure modes than combustion [engine] or other vehicles," he said.

Some of the chemistry in the battery the Volt uses was invented at Argonne, and Hillebrand’s team is currently testing the vehicle’s fuel efficiency.  He would not comment directly about the NHTSA investigation, but says the end result could ultimately help make the Volt a better vehicle.

“I do not test safety of vehicles, but we test other aspects of vehicles and we test them to find out, what are they going to do when you push them to the edge, and we need to know that, that is how you make them better," he said.

General Motors has sold about 6,000 Chevrolet Volts this year.

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