NHTSA Launches Formal Investigation to Assess Risk of Fire in Chevy Volt

By · November 26, 2011

Chevy Volt side impact

NHTSA launches formal investigation to assess the risk of a battery-related fire in Chevy Volts involved in serious collisions.

Perhaps the biggest fear of electric vehicle advocates, and companies that make EVs, is a single incident of a fire in a battery-powered car—which could taint the image of electric car technology, regardless of whether or not the car's batteries or electrical systems are to blame. It's way too early to know if such a scenario is emerging, but a series of recent events has led the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to open a formal safety investigation (NHTSA Action Number PE11037) to assess the risk of battery-related fires in the Chevy Volt.

In May, NHTSA put a Chevy Volt through a side pole impact test, followed by a post-impact rollover test. In connection with that test, NHTSA identified the potential for intrusion damage to the Volt's T-shaped lithium-ion battery pack, which could result in a thermal reaction and lead to a fire. Twenty-one days after the side impact test, delayed thermal heating and related pressure resulted in a fire that burned a Chevrolet Volt to the ground.

Since that incident, NHTSA gathered additional info on the potential for fire in Chevy Volts involved in accidents. NHTSA performed follow-up tests to simulate the incident, intentionally damaging the battery compartment and rupturing the Volt's coolant line. During a test conducted on November 18, the Volt's battery pack was rotated within hours after it was impacted and it began to smoke and emit sparks. On November 24, a Volt battery pack that was tested seven days prior caught fire at NHTSA's facility.

Due to the test results, NHTSA announced that it formally opened an investigation to examine the potential risks involved from intrusion damage to the battery pack that powers the Chevrolet Volt. In a statement, NHTSA announced that it's too soon to confirm whether or not the investigation will lead to a recall. If the Agency identifies an unreasonable risk to passenger safety, then Chevy Volt owners will be immediately notified.

How Will the Public Respond?

The nuances of this story—for example, the specific conditions which led to the fires or the fact that no conclusions have been made about anything yet—can easily be overlooked by the public. Electric vehicle critics are likely to encourage speculation, which could undermine public confidence in the technology.

G.M. said in a statement on Friday that the Volt "is safe and does not present undue risk as part of normal operation or immediately after a severe crash." NHTSA said that no fires have been reported in Volts involved in roadway crashes. "NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles have incredible potential to save consumers money at the pump, help protect the environment, create jobs and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on oil," the agency said.

In situations like this, statements cautioning the public not to overact are often overlooked. How remote is the possibility of a fire in a Chevy Volt? Are these isolated incidents? Are the risks only associated with the Volt, and not other EVs? Is there really a safety defect in the Volt's technical design? Can NHTSA get to the bottom of things, so we can move on? Despite what NHTSA determines, will the incident cast a shadow of doubt in the minds of prospective electric car owners?

At this stage, there are more questions than answers.

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