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Chevy Volt Battery Fire Sparks NHTSA Investigation

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2011 Chevrolet VoltA fire that broke out in a parked Chevrolet Volt three weeks after U.S. regulators conducted a crash test of that car has prompted federal regulators to investigate the safety of lithium-ion batteries in electric and hybrid cars.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced last Friday that it is testing the lithium-ion batteries and is working with all car manufacturers to develop post-crash procedures to ensure the safety of electric vehicle occupants and first responders. The agency does not believe electric or hybrid vehicles pose a greater risk of fires than car with gasoline-powered engines.

And Jim Federico, GM chief engineer for electric vehicles, said, “First and foremost, I want to make this very clear: The Volt is a safe car.”

As John Crawley and Ben Klayman report for Reuters:

GM said it was not aware of any other Volt fires. A senior NHTSA official said the agency has received no consumer complaints about fires involving GM or other electric cars.

Both GM and NHTSA conducted follow-up tests and could not repeat the fire. The agency plans additional electric car battery tests with Energy Department experts in coming weeks.

The Volt that broke into fire while being stored in a garage at a NHTSA testing center in Wisconsin had been crash-tested three weeks earlier, last May. The 20-mile-per-hour side-impact test damaged the battery pack, but the exact reason for the fire is not yet clear, NHTSA said.

Nick Bunkley writes for The New York Times, “The test resulted in a rating of five stars, the highest score possible. The government also gave the Volt five stars in rollover crashes, four stars in front-impact crashes and five stars over all.”

A plug-in electric hybrid with a gasoline engine, the Volt has a T-shaped lithium-ion battery that weighs nearly 400 pounds and fits across the rear and down the middle of the car between the back seats, rather than under the hood. The Volt’s gas-powered 1.4-liter engine provides additional range after the car has run about 40 miles on a fully charged battery.

Paul A. Eisenstein, of, reports on that the fire would have been preventable if a few steps been taken after the crash tests:

The wrecked vehicle was subsequently moved to what GM spokesman Rob Peterson called ‘the boneyard,’ where it was left unattended, no action taken to deal with either the vehicle’s charged lithium-ion battery or the coolant fluid that had, in fact, leaked out after the crash test. The gas tank used to power Volt’s back-up gas engine was drained.

Preliminary evidence indicates that over time the normally inert coolant came into contact with some of the LIon battery cells.  In liquid form that would not be a problem, but it eventually ‘crystallized’ as the Wisconsin weather turned cold at night, according to Peterson. That eventually led to the battery shorting out and catching fire, apparently, though a formal cause has not been announced by safety regulators. […]

‘NHTSA didn’t follow our protocol,’ which would have required the agency to ‘de-energize the battery after the crash test,’ Peterson said. But, Peterson quickly added that it appears NHTSA employees ‘didn’t know our protocol,’ which was developed after GM conducted its own crash tests.

The federal agency has since been advised what to do when crashing a battery car, which apparently would include other electric vehicles besides the Chevrolet Volt, particularly those using liquid cooling systems.

To reach President Obama’s goal of putting a million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015, the Energy Department has given around $2.5 billion in funding to automakers, companies that make batteries and related businesses in recent years.

According to Reuters:

A range of new electric vehicles, including the Volt and upcoming models from Tesla Motors Inc and Fisker, are powered by the same kind of lithium-ion batteries that have long been used in consumer electronics.

Those batteries deliver the power and range that electric vehicles require, but the current generation of lithium-ion batteries also has a tendency to overheat. writes that there have been serious concerns about lithium-ion technology, which has been linked to a number of fires involving laptop computers, mobile phones, and other portable electronic devices.

Prof. Tomasz Wierzbicki, director of the Impact and Crashworthiness Laboratory at M.I.T., who has convened a group to study lithium battery safety, told Christopher Jensen of The New York Times blog Wheels that that lithium-ion battery packs in automobiles are susceptible to damage not just in direct impacts, but also from violently sudden stops, which could cause damage that is imperceptible from the outside. Wierzbicki said automakers have been working on determining the safest way to handle lithium batteries after an accident.

Nick Bunkley writes:

N.H.T.S.A. said it encouraged emergency responders who encountered an electric vehicle involved in a crash to ‘use copious amounts of water if fire is present or suspected’ and be aware that ‘fire can occur for a considerable period after a crash.’

The agency also said damaged vehicles should be kept in an open area rather than an enclosed building or garage and away from other vehicles. It said tow-truck drivers or salvage-yard operators should contact the vehicle’s manufacturer rather than attempt to discharge the battery themselves.

Image by mariordo59, used under its Creative Commons license.


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