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NHTSA investigates post-crash fire risk in Chevy Volt

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Nov. 30, 2011—The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) advised General Motors Nov. 25 that it will open a formal safety defect investigation to assess the risk of fire in Chevy Volts that have been involved in a serious crash.

NHTSA’s investigation follows six months of research and tests designed to induce electric vehicle battery failure after severe crash situations, according to General Motors.

NHTSA launched the investigation of Volt battery assemblies after a New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) side pole crash test caused an electrical fire last May. The NCAP test—which is designed to measure the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision—damaged the Volt’s lithium-ion battery and ruptured its coolant line, causing a fire more than three weeks later.

NHTSA, which is working with General Motors and the U.S. Energy and Defense departments to analyze the fires, recently conducted three more tests. The agency intentionally damaged the Volt’s lithium-ion battery compartment and ruptured the vehicle’s coolant line. In each test, the battery was impacted and rotated to simulate a real-world, side-impact collision into a narrow object followed by a rollover.

NHTSA conducted the first new test Nov. 16 without a fire. The second test, conducted Nov. 17, saw an initial increase in battery temperature after the crash, causing the battery pack to catch fire at the test facility Nov. 24. In the third test, conducted Nov. 18, the battery was rotated hours after the crash and began smoking and emitting sparks shortly after, according to NHTSA.

NHTSA said it is too soon to tell whether the investigation will lead to a recall of any vehicles or parts. But the agency said it will take immediate action to notify consumers if it identifies any unreasonable risk to safety.

General Motors is taking action to eliminate concerns of post-crash fires in the Volt. Mary Barra, senior vice president of global product development for General Motors, said GM established a senior engineering team to develop possible design changes, and to work with industry professionals to ensure appropriate electric vehicle protocols are in place.

“GM and the [NHTSA’s] focus and research continue to be on the performance, handling, storage and disposal of batteries after a crash or other significant event,” Barra said. “We’re working with NHTSA so we all have an understanding about these risks and how they can be avoided in the future. This isn’t just a Volt issue.  We’re already leading a joint electric vehicle activity with Society of Automotive Engineers and other automotive companies to address new issues, such as this protocol of depowering batteries after a severe crash.”

Barra said General Motors will continue to work with NHTSA, suppliers, dealers and manufacturing teams to initiate any necessary changes as soon as possible.

General Motors has already began communicating with Volt owners about the issue. Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, said the company will establish a Volt owner satisfaction program. Any Volt owner concerned about the safety of their vehicle can arrange for a free General Motors vehicle loan until the issue has been resolved.

“A vehicle loan program of this nature is well beyond the norm for a preliminary investigation, and it underlines our commitment to the vehicle and its owners,” Reuss said. “These steps are the right ones to take regardless of any immediate impact on our operations.”

The NHTSA said it is not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts—or any other vehicle powered by lithium-ion batteries. The agency said Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern.

Reuss said the question is how to deal with the battery days and week after a severe crash. He said it’s a matter of interest not just for the Volt, but also for the industry as it continues to advance the pursuit of electric vehicles.

“The Volt is a five-star safety car. Even though no customer has experienced in the real world what was indentified in this latest testing of post-crash situations, we’re taking critical steps to ensure customer satisfaction and safety,” Reuss said. “Our customers’ peace of mind is too important to us for there to be any concern or worry. This technology should inspire confidence and pride, not raise any concern or doubt.”

The Chevy Volt, which launched in 2010, has won more than 30 awards in the U.S. and other markets, according to General Motors. The Volt achieved a five-star NCAP overall vehicle score for safety by the NHTSA, and is a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

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