Auto safety regulators probe Volt battery fire

November 12, 2011

Auto safety regulators probe Volt battery fire

Vehicle blaze occurs three weeks after government crash test

/ The Detroit News

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Friday it is investigating fire risks in the electric Chevrolet Volt because one caught fire three weeks after its battery was damaged in a government crash test.

The Volt fire has prompted NHTSA to take a broader look at the safety and procedures for dealing with electric-vehicle batteries after crashes.

NHTSA and General Motors Co. officials said they were unaware of any other fires in the 5,000-plus Volts that have been sold. The Volt has earned a five-star overall crash rating, the highest available.

News of the fire comes as automakers try to convince American motorists that electric cars are a viable alternative to traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.

General Motors Co. and Nissan were first to get them into showrooms, but other carmakers are rushing their own electric vehicles to the U.S. market.

Although October Volt sales were the strongest since the car’s introduction in December, the Detroit automaker is struggling to meet its 2011 sales target of 10,000.

The fire took place in early June, after a May 12 side-impact test intended to replicate a crash into a tree or pole.

After the crash test, NHTSA found a damaged battery and coolant leak and sent the car to a storage lot. Unlike a crash test with a gasoline engine, where the tank would be drained, the battery remained charged.

GM believes that after sitting for three weeks, exposed to the weather, the coolant crystallized and interacted with the battery, causingthe fire, said GM spokesman Rob Peterson.

In a normal crash, the coolant interacting with a Volt battery would not cause a fire, he said.

GM’s protocol is to drain the battery of energy after a crash, but the automaker hadn’t informed NHTSA at the time of the test, the company said. In an actual roadway crash, GM would have been notified via OnStar and would have removed the battery for research.

NHTSA wants all electric vehicle manufacturers to provide information on procedures they have established for discharging and handling lithium-ion batteries. That includes any recommendations for minimizing fire risks.

Since the fire, the agency has replicated the crash test with another Volt — leaving it sitting for three weeks — but there was no fire. GM also tested a Volt and has been unable to replicate the fire.

In the coming weeks, in collaboration with the Department of Energy, NHTSA will conduct additional testing of the Volt’s lithium-ion batteries and will continue to monitor these vehicles, the agency said in a statement. NHTSA has at least three Volt battery packs that it plans to crash-test to see if it can replicate the fire. It hopes to complete the tests this month.

NHTSA also sent a team this week to investigate a garage fire in Mooresville, N.C., where a Volt was charging. According to preliminary findings, the Volt was not the cause of that fire.

Jim Federico, GM chief engineer for electric vehicles, said in a statement that the company believes the Volt is safe. GM officials said if NHTSA had followed standard protocols, and deactivated the battery after the crash, it is likely no fire would have occurred.

“We are working cooperatively with NHTSA as it completes its investigation,” Federico said. “However, NHTSA has stated that based on available data, there’s no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gas-powered car.”

Nissan released a statement Friday stressing that its all-electric Leaf has undergone rigorous testing and is designed with multiple safety systems to ensure safety in real-world use.

“All of our systems have been thoroughly tested to ensure real-world performance,” company officials said. “To date, the more than 8,000 Nissan Leafs driving on the U.S. roads have performed without reported incident.”

Lithium-ion batteries, used to power most electric vehicles, have previously been recalled for fire risks when used in laptop computers. Beginning in 2006, several laptop companies recalled millions of units over fire risks.

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