Chevy Volt Fire Raises Questions, But Safety Problem Very Unlikely

By · November 12, 2011

Chevy Volt side impact test

Chevy Volt NHTSA side impact crash test image.

On Friday, Bloomberg reported on a third fire involving a plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt. (See our post on the first Volt fire.) The latest fire, it seems, occurred in June three weeks after a Volt had been crash tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The vehicle is question was subjected to a side-impact "pole test," which reportedly destroyed the Volt and cracked its lithium-ion battery pack. Then, as per the NHTSA's test procedures, the wrecked Volt was rotated 90 degrees every five minutes to determine whether or not fluid leaked from the damaged vehicle. Reports claim that coolant did leak out of the Volt's cracked lithium-ion battery pack.

Chevy Volt side impact

Chevy Volt side impact crash test image.

Three weeks after the crash test, the damaged Volt ignited while parked in one of the NHTSA's storage yards in Wisconsin. Eventually, the flames engulfed a couple of nearby vehicles and all of the affected automobiles burnt to the ground.

Sometime after receiving word of the June fire, both General Motors and the NHTSA replicated the crash test and vehicle rotation procedure. However, neither GM nor the NHTSA could reproduce the conditions under which the battery pack ignited, according to Green Car Reports.

Chevy Volt side impact test

Chevy Volt side impact crash test image.

In describing the incident, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stated:

"NHTSA has concluded that the crash test damaged the Volt's lithium ion battery and that the damage led to a vehicle fire that took several weeks to develop after the test was completed. That incident—which occurred at the test facility and caused property damage but no injuries—remains the only case of a battery-related fire in a crash or crash test of vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries, despite a number of other rigorous crash tests of the Chevy Volt separately conducted by both NHTSA and General Motors."

The NHTSA then released this statement regarding the safety of electric vehicles:

"Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, all vehicles—both electric and gasoline-powered—have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash. As manufacturers continue to develop vehicles of any kind—electric, gasoline, or diesel—it is critical that they take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of drivers and first responders both during and after a crash."

Chevy Volt side impact test

Chevy Volt side impact crash test image.

Shortly after Bloomberg broke the story of the third reported Volt fire, General Motors' chief engineer for electric vehicles, Jim Federico, responded by releasing this statement:

"First and foremost, I want to make this very clear: the Volt is a safe car. 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 gasoline-powered car."

"Safety protocols for electric vehicles are clearly an industry concern. At GM, we have safety protocols to depower the battery of an electric vehicle after a significant crash. We are working with other vehicle manufacturers, first responders, tow truck operators, and salvage associations with the goal of implementing industry-wide protocols."

Nissan LEAF

Nissan claims that there's been no reported incidents of fire involving the battery pack that powers the LEAF.

Nissan spokeswoman Katherine Zachary told Automotive News that there have been no incidents of fire involving the battery pack in the Nissan LEAF:

"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. To date, the more than 8,000 Nissan LEAFs driving on the US roads have performed without reported incident."

Comments

· · 2 years ago

"NHTSA has concluded that the crash test damaged the Volt's lithium ion battery and that the damage led to a vehicle fire that took several weeks to develop after the test was completed."

"... that took several weeks to develop after the test was completed."

"...several weeks to develop..."

I have a feeling this part will not be given the attention it deserves.

· · 2 years ago

Let's put this in perspective: In the U.S., 184,500 ICE vehicle fires in 2010 caused 285 civilian deaths, 1,450 civilian injuries and $1 billion in direct property damage -- http://www.nfpa.org/displayContent.asp?categoryID=953&itemID=29658 .

See another informative and humorous analysis at Jalopnik: http://jalopnik.com/5858730/are-electric-cars-safe (thanks to Chelsea Sexton for pointing to this in an online post).

· · 2 years ago

As I mentioned on the other Volt thread yesterday, time delayed combustion of damaged lithium cells is not an unknown phenomenon. Electric model airplane folks know (or should know) that any cell which experiences a severe physical rough-up should be set aside and stored away from anything else until it's been determined that the cell isn't expanding and ready to burst. The danger of fire may actually be greater after a significant period of time elapses.

The battery pack on the Volt is composed of hundreds of such cells. It may have only been one that got damaged and leaks may have not been apparent on the rotation test described above. If that one cell expanded and subsequently burst, it will take all the others with it in the resulting fire.

The NHTSA correctly notes that fire danger is going to be present on both gasoline and battery electric powered vehicles. We're used to the more-or-less instantaneous combustion characteristics of gasoline. The time delay combustion prevalent in certain kinds of lithium battery damage is something most of us have yet to get used to.

· · 2 years ago

Thanks Felix for both of those links. Very valuable information, as is Eric's article.
If we use those numbers and estimate that there are about 250 million cars in US we can calculate ( 250 000 000 / 184 500 = 1355) that the likelihood for any ICE vehicle to catch fire on highways in 2010 was 1 to 1355. If we apply this likelihood to plug-in vehicles (15 000 / 1355 = 11) we should see 11 fires this year. Although I don’t know how many plug-in vehicles have been involved in any fires on highways, so far I haven’t heard about single case (Volt catching fire three weeks after crash test doesn’t really count). Perspective sure helps.

· · 2 years ago

A customer came into my restaurant tonight(he knows in an EV advocate and have the MINI-E) and said "Did you hear the news? These electric cars you like are all going to be recalled because they explode if they are in an accident. I'm not so sure I'd want to drive one if I had to worry about it exploding"

Ugg. Where to begin...

· · 2 years ago

@Tom
You are right that this will cause a lot of confusion. I'm trying to figure out how this attention can be turned to education. I think that if we are prepared we can have really good discussions with people.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

While this is definitely something that needs to be investigated let everyone not forget just a year or so ago there were all kinds of news stories about lithium ion batteries in all sorts of things like cell phones, lap top computers, etc., etc. exploding and, or, catching on fire. The potential problem isn't with the car as much as it's with the type of battery, the same type of battery that the Leaf and other electric cars will be, or are, using.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

Some interesting facts. As Anon above has pointed out, there have been several reported fires for laptop batteries. Incidents for cell phones batteries exploding or fire have occurred too, but in most cases they were due to poor QC'ed Li batteries from China. The worst one was a plane crash (UPS) due to Li battery fire.

Yet, for EVs, there have only been 1 fire. It was on a Tesla roadster, and a recall was announced for 400+ Teslas. There have been LEAFs, Mini-E, various NEV, Smart EV, and NOT a single fire for almost 1.5 years now. Maybe there's a jinx or curse on the Volt - 3 fires - 1 probably not due to Volt, 1 still under investigation (house fire), and 1 for sure on the Volt. It's been a LONG time when there were multiple fires related to the same vehicle (brand/model) here in the US.

· · 2 years ago

Felix Kramer,

Wow! Thank you very much for the valuable info!
This really put things in perspective! Electric cars are actually safer!

I did see an ICE car fire couple of years ago. It was not even a highway fire - it was 45 MPH street. I did not know that ICE car fires are so common.

· · 2 years ago

About ICE car fire I saw couple of years ago: The frame of the car was relatively not damaged as far as it was possible to see through the flames. So it does not have to be a serious car accident for an ICE car to catch a fire.

· Mahendra (not verified) · 2 years ago

Even the safest car will not give 100% safety there are some or the other drawbacks in every car the same is happening in Chevy Volt, hope so they will fix it as per requirement.

· · 2 years ago

The big year for lithium battery computer laptop fires was 2006, when Sony brand units where the culprit. It turned out that manufacturing tolerances where not observed as they should, with metal shards showing up inside the cell's electrolyte as the exterior foil packs where being sealed shut. We really haven't heard about a wholesale rash of lithium battery fires since then.

Lithium battery fires are typically a result of incorrect charging procedures or if the cell's exterior is breached. Incorrect charging is going to be more common among model plane or car hobbyists, who may mistakenly set their "all-in-one" chargers to the incorrect lithium formula (Li-MnO2 instead of LiFePO4, etc.) or - worse - the Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) setting on any sort of Lithium cell.

This "wrong charger setting" scenario rarely happens in computers or cell phones, where consumers are most likely to use only the charging equipment that came with their devices. Ditto with EVs, where much of the charging circuitry is built into the car itself and preset for the specific batteries onboard.

Breached cell are another issue. If the electric model airplane crashes or the hand-held gadget gets crushed and it appears that the foil battery pack in either case got even slightly manged, take it out of the device and put it outside the house - away from anything else flammable - inside a clay/ceramic flower pot. If you are going to get a time delayed fire, better there than inside the house.

As a side note, old lithium cells should never be simply thrown in the trash when they've outlived their useful lifespan. The EPA - and even many consumer businesses, such as Best Buy and Ikea - will take your old batteries and make sure they are responsibly recycled.

Those same foil-packed cells in an EV are built inside a very robust crash-resistant metal container. The issues involving the Volt fire seem to revolve around a catastrophic side collision, where the battery container was purposely damaged, and the manufacturer had a very clear set of guidelines in place in case of said event. It appears that the battery container was removed from the vehicle per instructions, but that it otherwise wasn't properly sequestered for delayed fire danger, so those surrounding vehicles got engulfed.

These things ARE going to happen with lithium batteries and it's going to take a awhile for average consumers and authorities alike to be brought up to speed regarding what to watch for when handling them. We've had 100+ years to get used to the dangers of gasoline and become nonchalant regarding the inherent dangers. As noted above, we have ICE vehicle fires all the time, but it rarely gets a mention in the media.

I guess the final question to be asked is . . . would you rather have your vehicle fire occur at the crash site, while you're still inside? Or would you rather have you're vehicle fire (make that the "battery pack only" fire) occur days or weeks later, safely inside a ceramic flame sequestering enclosure?

· · 2 years ago

@Anonymous,
". . . 1 fire. It was on a Tesla roadster . . . "
What incident are you referring to? I haven't heard of any Tesla fires. There's one non-issue on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFl8v1lxH0k) but you'll notice that no fire is visible and the person with fire extinguisher is squirting into the hood, nowhere near the battery.

· jim1961 (not verified) · 2 years ago

Note to self: Do not remain in damaged vehicle more than two weeks after a serious collision.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

Hi everyone,

There's a new update over the weekend on this incident.

http://www.examiner.com/technology-in-national/did-the-nhtsa-contribute-...
http://www.green.autoblog.com/2011/11/14/chevy-volt-fire-to-prompt-new-s...
http://www.mgstech.net/federal-testers-may-have-caused-chevy-volt-fire-g...

2 things here:
(1) In the examiner and mgstech (taken from detroitbureau.com) articles:

“NHTSA didn’t follow our protocol,” which would have required the agency to “de-energize the battery after the crash test,” Peterson said. But, Peterson quickly added that it appears NHTSA employees “didn’t know our protocol,” which was developed after GM conducted its own crash tests.

Now this is interesting. it seems that the protocols are in fact, not developed UNTIL AFTER the incident, ie. the fire has already happened. I see that a lot of people are putting blame on NHTSA, and so has GM. In fact, NHTSA has done nothing wrong, and it was actually "safe" to store the vehicle in the original fashion. Thus, I'm not sure if it's actually appropriate for comments such as jim1961 or Smidge204, as there has been nothing about "the battery must be drained" prior, if the cell battery has been ruptured. If anyone has to be blamed, it is GM (not EV, not NHTSA) for not providing the recommendation prior. It's like, blaming the inventor of ICE for causing global warming now, when no one knew about what GW is about during that era.

(2) In this ABG article, kind of elaborating on (1),

"The Detroit Free Press says GM must currently deploy a team to drain Volt batteries, though a GM spokesman says a tool to drain batteries may become available to dealerships next year."

IOW, the procedure to drain the battery - not only wasn't it there, and even if it was, there's no tool to do it! That's alarming because winter is here now (reports have indicated that the incident was due to cold weather - temperature changed gradually in 3 weeks, which caused coolant crystallization, thus a short circuit, followed by fire), and for those that have crashed/totaled their Volts, battery fire would have remained a potential hazard somewhere down the road. In fact, the problem can occur much sooner now due to the fact that winter is upon us. Also note that the fix is not to disconnect the battery, since doing so will NOT prevent the fire from happening, which many of the EV communities have commented.

I do question what body shops or storage companies will do if they receive a damaged Volt at this point? They have neither the knowledge or tools to work on those batteries, and in their business, they don't do ANYTHING until they receive money and release of liability from insurance companies/owners.

· · 2 years ago

@Anonymous,
" . . . they don't do ANYTHING until they receive money and release of liability from insurance companies/owners"
Are you suggesting that if an ICE vehicle arrives that is dripping gasoline, they just let it sit there?
It sounds to me like the best procedure, at least initially, for a crashed Volt with suspected battery compartment damage would be to drain the gas tank of it's explosive contents and then leave the Volt, by itself, away from other things until the battery pack can be removed for inspection/repair. This should keep things safe.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

@ EV Now,

I'm referring to EV vehicles, not ICE. Is there documentation or legislation as to what to do after a Volt (or EV crash)? To release an entity from liability, that entity must be acting in full compliance of some legislation or published/approved documentation. Specifically, don't view the drainage of charge as a step of action, but one must need to know what tools or procedures to perform just to set up the equipments or connections.

That is not the same as gasoline drainage, when such documentation, and possibly legislation exists already. The tools are available. The documentation on how to do so is available. The training is also available.

I do know for sure, as per reports, that no procedure existed for draining battery after a crash, at least from GM. EVEN if it is common sense to drain charge, as in ICE vehicle draining gasoline, which I doubted, because body shops and storage areas have been working on EVs for the past hundred of years, such knowledge and tool doesn't exist for those 2 to do it themselves until some time next year.

And the problem here is that, the current guess is that temperature is the factor, not time. Thus, if it's true, one can ignore the 3 weeks time period, but the weather of the day when such damage occurs.

What can 1st responders or tow truck drivers do on a cold, freezing day? How long does it take to drain a charged Volt battery, esp when there is coolant leaking and being exposed to the cold temperature? You tell me.

· · 2 years ago

@Anonymous,
(it would be nice if you'd register so we'd know that we were talking with the same person)
The reason I mentioned draining the gasoline from the Volt is that I'm pretty sure gasoline as the cause for the conflagration that spread to nearby vehicles. Battery fires are more like safety flares: Dramatic, but relatively confined in their burn area and very little actual energy expended.
I'm not buying the temperature story at all. It is a well known fact that damaged Li-ion batteries can catch fire if a short develops within the cell. Crushing them could definitely do so. This, by itself is sufficient to explain what happened in Wisconsin.
After a crash where battery damage is suspected, The gas tank should be emptied (for PHEVs) and the battery should be removed from the vehicle and inspected for damage. Any damaged cells should be recycled immediately. The vehicle manufacturer should be able to quickly tell a body shop exactly what needs to be done.
Although the manufacturers should definitely provide detailed instructions, it would be something like this: Tow truck driver generally should disconnect the battery (a safety disconnect should be provided) and tow the vehicle to a safe area. If battery damage is suspected, they should drain the gas tank (that's the really dangerous stuff), call the manufacturer, and follow manufacturer's directions.
I don't know if draining charge is an issue at all. I can see how that could actually cause more problems if it leads to internal heating. I'd only do so if recommended by the manufacturer.
This is all new stuff that is needed to move society from it's dependence on oil.

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