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Perspective: Chevy Volt's political smoke and one-time fire
In the fallout that followed the Chevy Volt investigation, Sarah Butzen finds a lot of smoke, one fire.
Posted January 30, 2012
Poor Chevy Volt, first the darling of American-made Eco-friendliness incarnate, then the poster child for technological advances gone south. All in the space of a few days.

GM's flagship hybrid was given a clean bill of health from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but then hauled in for questioning by the U.S. Congress. What gives?

There are two competing lines of reasoning for this. One is that the Volt - and probably other electric cars by association - is a rolling fire hazard that is only on the road because Barack Obama wants to look "green." After all, why else would the NHTSA conduct all kinds of covert tests behind closed doors? No smoke without fire.

The opposing story is that the car is safe, has been safe, and thanks to a hypothetical occurrence happening under laboratory conditions, is now even safer. No smoke without self-interested politicians fanning the flames of this purely academic fire.

The truth of the matter, it would seem, is somewhere in the middle - though perhaps not quite equidistant from the two sides.

It all began in May 2011, when NHTSA was conducting crash tests on the Volt as part of its New Car Assessment Program (all new cars go through it, though not necessarily subsequent model years). The Volt passed several rounds of testing, culminating in a side-pole crash test which simulates the impact of a broadside collision of a tree or telephone pole, and then a rollover test. Having taken a few for the team, the tested Volt was left in its totaled condition, along with other crash-tested cars, for about three weeks.

In early June, NHTSA staff discovered that a fire had broken out in the facility where the cars were stored. Fire department and internal investigation ruled out arson and determined that the fire most likely started in the test-thrashed Volt. A battery teardown revealed that during the side-pole crash test, the transverse stiffener under the driver's seat had pierced the tunnel section of the battery compartment, rupturing the battery and allowing liquid battery coolant to leak out. In the subsequent rollover test, coolant flowed all over the battery electronics; after soaking in for three weeks, it caused a short, which started the fire.

Despite conducting several more increasingly sadistic side-pole crash tests, NHTSA couldn't replicate the battery rupture of the May test, nor the fire. To better understand the chain of events, the NHTSA partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Defense to develop tests that could replicate the battery damage in the crash-tested Volt. The tests, which involved intentionally rupturing and rotating the battery, found that when the battery was sufficiently charged, the coolant could cause electrical short circuits.

Now, as a rule, the NHTSA doesn't conduct defect investigations without some kind of impetus from real-world data - and there were no reports of actual fires or short circuits relating to actual Volts. This case was different, though; the Volt represented a new technology with little historical data to compare and contrast. Moreover, GM was proposing a field fix to prevent the transverse stiffener from penetrating the battery, and new data on the new fortifications would be useful.

The NHTSA decided in November 2011 to open a defect investigation based on test data alone. As part of the investigation, NHTSA developed a set of guides for owners, emergency responders, and tow-truck operators on how to deal with lithium-type batteries after a crash, primarily conveying the importance of draining the battery. The consumer guide is not significantly different from advice you'd get regarding a regular gas powered after an incident, except instead of advising drivers and passengers to get away from the car after a crash because it might explode, it tells you to get away for the car because it might catch fire, and that a live current may be present.

By the end of December, NHTSA had completed a final comprehensive set of crash tests (including three-week post-crash monitoring), and found no problems. The Volt received a five-star rating.

And they all lived happily ever after. The End. Well, no, not really.

The story continues.

Many people were understandably alarmed when they heard "Volt" and "fire" and "investigation" in the same sentence, especially if they'd already harbored worries about lithium battery safety or about the viability of electric cars in general. But seeing as those same many lacked ready access to the stacks of technical details, hand-wringing sufficed. So far, so normal.

Then the politicians got involved. Some of them seemed sincerely concerned; some seemed to see an opportunity for grandstanding. Just this January 25, the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Government Oversight and Reform called GM and NHTSA personnel on the carpet, berating both bodies for several hours with loaded questions along the lines of "Why did you hide the fire until November?" "Did the White House pressure you to keep quiet?" "How could you allow Americans to keep driving around in cars that could catch fire at any moment?" Regardless of the answers GM executives and NHTSA directors gave (generally, "we didn't," "no," and "they couldn't"), committee members were unsatisfied. In the end, the Committee simply professed their belief that the Obama Administration was helping GM and NHTSA to conceal just how dangerous Volts really are.

Other pundits weighed in as well and the story to spread that Volts basically don't work, have no power, and may, at any time, randomly burst into flame.

As U.S. politics go, this is an odd one. Traditionally, U.S. Republicans would be on the side of industry, denouncing the way safety regulations obstruct the free market, but they've seemingly abandoned that platform in favor of using the Volt as a stick with which to beat Obama (Ironically, Republicans have even called out the Volt tax credit as "socialist," though it was Bush who enacted it, not President Obama).

The bottom line is that the Volt, according to all available data, has an excellent safety rating is no more likely to catch fire than any traditional gasoline-powered car - probably significantly less likely, given that gasoline, you know, combusts, while short circuits take a while to generate enough heat to cause a fire.

It should be noted that NHTSA has not guaranteed that nothing bad will ever happen to you while you're driving a Volt. However, you may infer that if you're ever t-boned by an oak tree, then go on to roll your Volt, you then have three weeks to get away before one in 8000 of them catch fire in a storage facility.
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Newsroom Notes
Perspective: Chevy Volt's political smoke and one-time fire

File Under:
Drama, Engineering, Green, Automotive, GM, NHTSA
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