Volt tries to ride out storm of criticism

December 13, 2011
Volt tries to ride out storm of criticism
Battery fires prompt safety probe, hearing in Congress, political debate
By DAVID SHEPARDSON / Detroit News Washington Bureau
The Chevrolet Volt, intended to be the symbol of General Motors Co.’s commitment to innovation and proof that Detroit’s automakers can make “green” cars, has become a public relations and engineering challenge for the automaker.

GM is working to restore the reputation of its “halo car” — which it hoped would cast a favorable glow over its entire lineup — since it was revealed that a Volt and then a battery pack caught fire at least seven days after federal crash safety tests.

There have been no reports of fires in the real world, and safety experts say the Volt is safe to drive.

And while the Volt’s fans defend it, critics claim the car, which hasn’t met GM’s sales expectations, is an indication the car-buying public isn’t eager for an expensive electric car. President Barack Obama’s goal was to have 1 million electric cars on U.S. roadways by 2015.

The vehicle also has become the target of a congressional safety investigation — a hearing will be held next month — and a punching bag for conservative commentators.

Rush Limbaugh’s website features a montage of a Volt in flames with a modified campaign logo of Obama. Limbaugh suggests the Volt’s problems are an example of what happens “when government runs business.”

The U.S. Treasury still holds a 26.5 percent stake in GM, as a result of the automaker’s $49.5 billion federal bailout.

GM has acknowledged the Volt, which was never intended to be a big seller, will not meet its goal of 10,000 sales this year. Meeting its goal of 45,000 U.S. sales next year will be a steep climb. Through November, 6,142 Volts were sold — 0.27 percent of GM’s total U.S. sales this year.

But GM officials say early December Volt sales have been strong; the year-old vehicle is on pace to have its best-ever sales month. Few owners have asked GM to buy back the vehicle or asked for a loaner, as it offered.

“It’s up to us to continue to place Volt owners’ interests first,” GM spokesman Greg Martin said. “Our customers don’t seem to be distracted by the usual noise and chatter, and neither can we. Volts continue to do a quick turn on dealers’ lots and the industry’s most enthusiastic owners continue to stand by the car.”

GM says the Volt has helped bring thousands of customers to GM showrooms who haven’t visited in years — or ever.

2 fires last month
The fortunes of the Volt turned on Nov. 11, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed that a Volt caught fire in June, three weeks after it was in a government side-impact crash test.

After a Volt battery pack caught fire on Thanksgiving Day, seven days after another test, the agency opened a formal investigation into the extended-range electric vehicle.

GM’s engineering and public relations teams are working to contain the damage done to the car and the automaker’s image. Engineers are putting in long hours with NHTSA to try to understand the cause of the two fires.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland says GM “has been incredibly cooperative throughout the process — not only in being responsive, but also working shoulder to shoulder withour engineers.”

NHTSA, whose critics say it isn’t tough enough on auto companies, could take weeks or months to complete its preliminary investigation.

The agency has received complaints of fires outside of testing facilities, and says the Volt is safe to drive.

GM, which offered to loan Volt owners other GM cars or to buy back their Volts, is considering a series of measures to bolster the battery containment system to prevent a similar fire in the future.

The company has put on hold the sale of the Opel Ampera — the European version of the Volt — as it investigates battery issues.

Volt buyers undeterred
Volt’s defenders aren’t backing away. The New York City Police Department, which owns 20 Volts, confirmed Monday that it has no plans to halt the use of the vehicles.

General Electric Co. also plans to go through with its planned purchase of 12,000 Volts by 2015. The company has acquired “well into the hundreds,” spokesman Ned Reynolds said.

“They are coming in all the time,” he added, saying they are immediately put into service. “We’ve had a very good experience and the reviews from our drivers have been very positive.”

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the group is keeping an eye on NHTSA’s investigation, but has no plans to pull its top safety rating for the Volt. “I don’t see a reason for a driver to be worried about a fire” in a Volt crash, he said, noting that there have been no real world reports of fires in Volts.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has driven about 6,000 miles on her Volt, and is averaging 150 miles per gallon. She gushes about her Volt.

“This is the best car I’ve ever driven. I would refuse to turn it in,” Granholm said Monday, adding “I feel entirely safe.”

She lamented politically motivated criticism. “I think anybody who doesn’t support the technology breakthrough of allowing people to drive gas free is out of their minds.”

Subsidies questioned
Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., a Chevrolet dealer, wants Congress to end the subsidies for electric vehicles, including the Volt.

He and two other members of Congress sent letters to GM CEO Daniel Akerson and NHTSA asking questions about the delay in disclosing the initial Volt fire.

NHTSA and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have declined to discuss the investigation, but denied they covered up the initial fire.

Fires in gas-powered vehicles are fairly common.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 184,500 passenger vehicle fires in 2010 in the United States, causing 285 deaths and 1,440 injuries.

David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, said the public is nervous about technologies it doesn’t understand.

“It would almost be impossible to introduce gasoline-powered vehicles as a new technology today,” he said. “The Volt post-crash test fires were really no big deal.”

‘Still not economic’
The Volt faces the same issue that plug-in hybrids, full EVs and hybrids face, Cole said.

“These vehicles are still not economic. The technologies have a lot of promise, but none of them are economic in big numbers yet,” he said.

Cole said “some of the negative views of the Volt are really about ‘Government Motors’ and not about sound knowledge, but about politics.”

Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive, said the concerns about the Volt have gotten far more ink than deserved. “The hysteria around the Volt is largely media created. People who are thinking about buying a Volt can do their own research and make an informed decision.”

The Volt, introduced at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit and driven by Obama — for about 10 feet — in 2010, still faces a long road, Lindland said. “The jury is still out to some extent out because there are so few of these vehicles … and by market share, consumers still are not embracing advanced technologies like hybrids.”

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