The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is doubling down on GM as part of a broader electric vehicle investigation after the federal agency crash tested and induced fires in the Volt’s battery this month.
In a statement Friday, the agency determined its fire in May – that was never reported by GM or the government until months later – was, as GM has since conceded, caused by the Volt’s damaged battery. Full proof came during the middle of this month when two crashed Volt batteries out of three ignited.
“The agency is concerned that damage to the Volt’s batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire,” NHTSA said. “NHTSA is therefore opening a safety defect investigation of Chevy Volts, which could experience a battery-related fire following a crash. Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern.”
Since the Volt’s launch, GM has said its post-crash procedure is to discharge its battery. But this has not stopped the federal government from testing it without doing this, and now that it has managed to start more fires, it is mentioning possibility of a recall.
“NHTSA is continually working to ensure automakers are in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards, culling information to identify safety defects, and ensuring manufacturers conduct any necessary safety recalls,” NHTSA said, and added further, “While it is too soon to tell whether the investigation will lead to a recall of any vehicles or parts, if NHTSA identifies an unreasonable risk to safety, the agency will take immediate action to notify consumers and ensure that GM communicates with current vehicle owners.”
The latest fires in question resulted from side-impact tests conducted Nov. 16, 17 and 18 on stand-alone Volt batteries. As mentioned, NHTSA did not discharge them, but left them charged – and even rotated one post-crash – to see what would happen.
The Nov 16 post-crash battery did not ignite, but the other two were not so benign.
“During the test conducted on November 18 using similar protocols, the battery pack was rotated within hours after it was impacted and began to smoke and emit sparks shortly after rotation to 180 degrees,” NHTSA said last week. “NHTSA’s forensic analysis of the November 18 fire incident is continuing this week. Yesterday, the battery pack that was tested on November 17 and that had been continually monitored since the test caught fire at the testing facility.”
Among other issues, NHTSA is presumably concerned for vehicle occupants in the event that no time lag as has thus far been experienced would allow them to exit safely. It is therefore continuing to work with the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and GM to assess the implications.
To balance out the alarm raised, NHTSA also noted it is unaware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in a Volt fire.
The agency also offered a broad-brush endorsement in line with the Obama administration’s sentiment for electrified vehicles.
“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,” NHTSA said. “In fact, NHTSA testing on electric vehicles to date has not raised safety concerns about vehicles other than the Chevy Volt.”
Although the Volt is being singled out, NHTSA meanwhile advised drivers and others who might be involved with any crashed electric vehicle as follows:
• Consumers are advised to take the same actions they would in a crash involving a gasoline-powered vehicle-exit the vehicle safely or await the assistance of an emergency responder if they are unable to get out on their own, move a safe distance away from the vehicle, and notify the authorities of the crash.
• Emergency responders should check a vehicle for markings or other indications that it is electric-powered. If it is, they should exercise caution, per published guidelines, to avoid any possible electrical shock and should disconnect the battery from the vehicle circuits if possible.
• Emergency responders should also use copious amounts of water if fire is present or suspected and keeping in mind that fire can occur for a considerable period after a crash should proceed accordingly.
• Operators of tow trucks and vehicle storage facilities should ensure the damaged vehicle is kept in an open area instead of inside a garage or other enclosed building.
• Rather than attempt to discharge a propulsion battery, an emergency responder, tow truck operator, or storage facility manager should contact experts at the vehicle’s manufacturer on that subject.
• Vehicle owners should not store a severely damaged vehicle in a garage or near other vehicles.
• Consumers with questions about their electric vehicles should contact their local dealers.
Much ado about very little?
There is no doubt the culture we live in is increasingly catering for safety, and what would have formerly been considered extremely cautious sensibilities can hold sway.
Meanwhile, others have observed that society accepts grandfathered-in dangers from conventional vehicles, having learned to deal with them as well as possible.
For example, there were 215,500 fires in the U.S. involving vehicles that use gasoline or diesel according to the National Fire Protection Association.
As GM attempts to introduce technology leading toward a replacement, it continues to make reassuring statements that the OnStar equipped and highly engineered Volt is very safe.
Time will tell what this latest public scrutiny ultimately means.
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