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."

New to EVs? Start here

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