battery fire

Update on Chevy Volt Hearing

by Marlo Lewis on February 2, 2012

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As noted here last week, the sparks flew at a Jan. 25 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing titled “The Volt Fire: What Did NHTSA Know and When Did They Know It?” Three witnesses testified: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator David Strickland, General Motors (GM) CEO Daniel Akerson, and John German of the International Council on Clean Transportation. My earlier post was based on newspaper accounts of the hearing. Over the weekend, I watched the archived video of the proceeding and read the testimonies and Committee Staff Report. Here are the key facts and conclusions as I see them:

  • The Volt battery fire occurred on June 2, 2011 in the parking lot of a Wisconsin crash test facility. The car caught fire three weeks after the vehicle had been totaled, on May 12, in a side-pole collision. The fire caused an explosion that destroyed not only the Volt but three other vehicles. The blast hurled one of the Volt’s components (a strut) a distance of nearly 80 feet.
  • The fire was caused by the leaking of coolant into the Volt’s powerful 300-volt battery, which had been punctured by the crash.
  • NHTSA could have avoided the fire had it run down (“drained,” “depowered,” “discharged”) the battery after the crash. This raises obvious questions: Was NHTSA responsible for the fire? Was the agency’s six-month silence partly an attempt to hide regulatory incompetence?
  • The Volt is a safe car; consumers should not fear to drive it. Gasoline-powered vehicles are more likely than battery-powered vehicles to burn after a crash. The post-crash explosion from a damaged gas tank can occur in seconds as opposed to weeks. Electric vehicle batteries are harder to puncture than gas tanks. NHTSA tried and failed to replicate the fire by crashing other Volt test vehicles. To induce another battery fire, NHTSA had to impale the battery with a steel rod and rotate it in coolant with special laboratory equipment.
  • GM is retrofitting Volt batteries to make them stronger and more leak proof, and is updating safety protocols to ensure batteries are depowered after crashes.
  • NHTSA kept silent about the fire for six months, acknowledging it only after Bloomberg News broke the story on November 11, 2011.
  • GOP Committee members produced no smoking gun evidence of collusion to cover up the Volt battery fire, such as an email saying ‘We’ve got to keep this under wraps or it will depress Volt sales, jeopardize EPA’s fuel economy negotiations with automakers, and make President Obama look bad.’
  • Nonetheless, the Obama administration’s heavy investment (financial and political) in GM in general and the Volt in particular creates an undeniable conflict of interest.
  • NHTSA determined the cause of the fire in August 2011, yet waited until November 25 to advise emergency responders, salvage yard managers, and Volt owners how to avoid, and reduce the safety risks associated with, post-crash fires.
  • Administrator Strickland’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, it is difficult to explain the agency’s secretiveness apart from political considerations that should not influence NHTSA’s regulatory deliberations.

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