No one wants to drive a car with a reputation for catching fire after an accident. When a Chevrolet Volt caught fire three days after being destroyed in NHTSA crash testing a media storm and federal investigation soon followed.
Journalists were quick to paint the bigger, scarier picture that the Volt fire brought into question the safety of all electric and hybrid-electric vehicles currently working their way into American driveways. The reason for this is the Volt, along with Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and others, all share one key breakthrough in electric vehicle technology: rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
Prior to the Chevy Volt fire mentioned above, the biggest threat to consumers’ acceptance of electric vehicles as a safe and practical alternative to gasoline powered cars was range anxiety, or the fear that electric cars driven too far from the nearest charging station will run out of power, stranding their passengers.
The development of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in cars such as the Volt helped significantly extend the range of plug-in electric vehicles and had the potential to play a huge role in calming range anxiety.
Then the Volt caught fire three days AFTER crash testing in a NHTSA parking lot. People aren’t surprised when a gasoline-powered car catches fire in an accident, but the Volt fire was different; weird and creepy, like the ark of the covenant smoldering in a warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Paranoia spewed from the press that automaker’s new electric vehicles could potentially be as dangerous as an elderly woman cooking over an open flame in a polyester top.
Bob Lutz, who helped champion the Volt to production in 2007 and now consults for General Motors, sternly refuted the hoopla.
"250,000 conventional gasoline-powered cars catch fire every year in the U.S. without any media panic," said Lutz. "Where is the outrage? Where are the congressional hearings?" (1)
In support of Lutz’s point, the NHTSA failed to follow GM’s policy of fully discharging the Volt’s battery after a serious crash, allowing a fluid leak to reach the battery electronics and ignite a fire. In a real-world scenario, first responders should be trained to discharge the battery of the Volt or any other electric car at the scene of an accident, preempting the threat of an eventual fire.
Tesla for one has already worked with first responders to establish steps to safely handle crashed electric vehicles. Nonetheless, U.S. auto-safety regulators are currently examining the safety of lithium-ion batteries in all plug-in electric vehicles in the wake of the Volt crash test fire.
“I want to make this very clear: the Volt is a safe car,” Jim Federico, GM’s chief engineer, said in an e-mailed statement. “We are working cooperatively with NHTSA as it completes its investigation. However, NHTSA has stated that based on available data, there’s no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gas-powered car.” (2)
Aside from the Volt, the Nissan leaf went on sale in 2011 as the first mass-market plug-in electric car in United States. There hasn’t been a reported fire involving more than 8,000 Leafs on U.S. roads, Katherine Zachary, a spokeswoman for Nissan, said in an email. (2)
“The Nissan Leaf battery pack has been designed with multiple safety systems in place to help ensure its safety in the real world. All of our systems have been thoroughly tested to ensure real-world performance,” she said.
General Motors announced recently that adding a steel reinforcement to the steel structure around the batter back of the Volt and a small bracket on the battery coolant reservoir to stop possible leaks from reaching the battery should be the only changes that need to be made to the car.
NHTSA has since crashed a Volt with these changes on December 22 and found the battery compartment was not penetrated and no coolant leakage occurred. To be on the safe side, NHTSA has kept an eye on the wrecked vehicle since the crash test and will continue to do so for another week.
The agency said from the results of the test thus far GM’s changes to the Volt should take care of the issue.
Both the Leaf and Volt received the NHTSA’s top crash-test rating this year. As automakers begin to expand their plug-in electric vehicle lineups in the months and years to come, we should be anxious to put anxieties new and old of the electric car behind us and embrace it as a major step towards loosening the world’s dependence on fossil fuel.
Picture: Robin Wulffson, M.D