GM Seeks to Head Off Chevy Volt PR Crisis

Quick response designed to reassure Volt customers.

Seeking to avoid a public relations crisis on par with Toyota and its unintended acceleration debacle, General Motors has responded quickly to reports that its extended-range Chevrolet Volt is prone to catching on fire. Last Friday, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration announced that it had opened a “formal safety defect investigation to assess the risk of fire in Chevy Volts that have been involved in a serious crash.” [1]

NHTSA Tests

In May 2011, the NHTSA crashed a Chevrolet Volt in a new car assessment program test designed to measure the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. That test revealed that the Volt’s hybrid battery was damaged and the coolant line was ruptured. Three weeks later, a fire broke out in the same vehicle, leading the NHTSA to conclude that the cause of the fire was a result of damage to the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery during the crash test.

Following the fire incident, the NHTSA has worked toward gathering additional information about the potential for fire in electric vehicles involved in a crash. The NHTSA has been working with the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense — in close coordination with experts from GM — to complete rigorous tests of the Volt’s lithium-ion batteries.

Post Crash Fires

Two fires involving Chevrolet Volt vehicles following crash tests have occurred according to the Detroit Free Press. [2] These incidences and the NHTSA investigation has led GM to take unprecedented steps to reassure Volt owners. Specifically, the automaker has offered Volt owners free loaner cars indefinitely.

Said Mark Reuss, president, “The Volt is a five-star safety car. Even though no customer has experienced in the real world what was identified in this latest testing of post-crash situations, we’re taking critical steps to ensure customer satisfaction and safety. Our customers’ peace of mind is too important to us for there to be any concern or any worry. This technology should inspire confidence and pride, not raise any concern or doubt. The question is about how to deal with the battery days and weeks after a severe crash, making it a matter of interest not just for the Volt, but for our industry as we continue to advance the pursuit of electric vehicles.”

Simulated Test

Indeed, the second crash test didn’t involve a Chevrolet Volt directly. Instead, the NHTSA took three Volt batteries and simulated the test. One week later, on Thanksgiving Day, one of the batteries caught fire. The following day, the NHTSA launched its investigation; on Monday GM announced its customer assurance program. [3]

Mary Barra, senior vice president, Global Product Development, noted that the fires aren’t just a Volt issue, rather a risk with all electric vehicles. “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 GM would continue to work closely with the NHTSA, Volt suppliers, Chevrolet dealers and manufacturing teams to respond accordingly.

Loaner Vehicles

How unusual is the Chevrolet Volt loaner program? Said Reuss, “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. These steps are the right ones to take regardless of any immediate impact on our operations.”

Perhaps GM’s greatest challenge is to counter the often exaggerated responses that some media pundits take when it comes to any news about electric vehicles in general and the Chevy Volt specifically. Much of that opposition comes from people who still cannot get past the federal government’s rescue of General Motors in 2009, with some calling the Volt “Obama’s favorite car.” Regardless, the response by GM is a smart one, allowing the automaker to get ahead of the news curve and to quiet (most) of the opposition.

References

[1] NHTSA: Statement of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration On Formal Safety Defect Investigation of Post-Crash Fire Risk in Chevy Volts; Lynda Tran; November 25, 2011

[2] Detroit Free Press: GM Reassures Volt Owners After Battery Fires; Chrissie Thompson; November 29, 2011

[3] GM: GM Builds on Battery Safety to Ensure Confidence in Chevrolet Volt; November 28, 2011

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  1. [...] the $7,500 tax credit offered for the Volt and similiar EVs. Last November, GM found itself in a PR crisis as reports of Volt fires resulted in a very public NHTSA investigation. The NHTSA later cleared the [...]