Case Closed: NHTSA Chevy Volt Investigation

It was an open and shut case.

On November 25, 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation to determine whether there was a post-crash fire risk of the Chevrolet Volt. That investigation followed a fire that took place at the NHTSA’s testing center in Wisconsin, one that was attributed to the Volt.

Delayed Conflagration

The Volt fire took place three weeks after the NHTSA put the car through a side impact crash test. It wasn’t a recent incident either as the fire had happened the previous spring. Two other reports of Volt fires have also been reported including one in Virginia where three other vehicles were destroyed. According to Nick Bunkley and Bill Vlasic writing for the New York Times, the Volt was exposed to coolant from its cooling system. Coolant is flammable and when it comes in contact with a hot battery a fire will most likely take place.

Coinciding with its Chevy Volt probe the NHTSA asked Ford, GM, Nissan and other manufacturers using lithium-ion batteries about the fire risk these batteries posed. GM said that had spent more than 300 hours testing the Volt before to the market and when trying to replicate the fire with the NHTSA it could not. GM also recalled every Volt it has sold, modifying these and cars in production to reduce the possibility of a fire.

NHTSA Conclusions

On January 20, 2012, the NHTSA announced that its probe concluded that “…no discernible defect trend exists and that the vehicle modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts.” In its related press release, the NHTSA said that it was “unaware of any real-world crashes that have resulted in a battery-related fire involving the Chevy Volt or any other electric vehicle.” The NHTSA also expressed satisfaction with GM’s modifications.

Following a serious accident involving an electric vehicle, that car’s battery should be removed. According to the Consumerist, “…if a lithium battery is pierced by steel, a chemical reaction occurs that raises the temperature and can result in a fire. The smaller the piercing, the longer it can take for the fire to happen.” The Volt’s battery was not removed following the test, thus the fire.

Volt Detractors

Will the closure of the NHTSA investigation silence the Volt’s detractors? No, probably not. If you want to criticize this vehicle for its high price, its government support, its limited electric-only range or the minimal interest consumers have shown for it and similar models, then have at it. As far as fire risk goes this story has seen its 15 minutes of infamy and can now be filed away.

Moving on to the real stories….

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