Regulators Concluded Inquiry After Finding Volts Are Just As Safe As Conventional Cars
Battery Fire Happened Weeks After Pole Crash Test And Rollover Test. From the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s description of the test:
During an NCAP [New Car Assessment Program] oblique side pole impact test conducted by NHTSA in May 2011, the pole struck and deformed the sill plate under the driver’s door at a location where there is a structural member. The lateral member displaced inward, pierced the HV battery enclosure and battery, and caused a battery coolant leak. Thereafter, the Agency conducted a rollover test (the rollover test consists of four 90-degree rotate-and-hold movements about the vehicle’s longitudinal axis). In that test, the HV battery and electronics were exposed to coolant that leaked as a result of the crash. The vehicle fire that occurred three weeks later and the additional testing NHTSA conducted are discussed in a report titled "2011 Chevrolet Volt Battery Fire Incident Report" a copy of which is available in the public file. The report indicates that intrusion induced coolant leakage, and subsequent rollover that saturates electronic components, were the only test conditions which resulted in a subject vehicle HV battery fire. [NHTSA, 1/26/12]
CNN: "No Fires Were Reported In Cars That People Were Actually Driving." CNN’s Erin Burnett made clear that fires had only occurred in crash tests, not real-life scenarios:
ERIN BURNETT: Investigators did not find a safety defect. They also supported GM’s fix, which reinforces the structure surrounding the battery. No fires were reported in cars that people were actually driving. This came from crash tests. [CNN, Out Front with Erin Burnett, 1/20/12]
NHTSA Did Not Drain Battery After Crash, As GM Protocols Require. From an Associated Press report:
General Motors spokesman Greg Martin said the test did not follow procedures developed by GM engineers for handling the Volt after a crash. The engineers tested the Volt’s battery pack for more than 300,000 hours to come up with the procedures, which include discharge and disposal of the battery pack, he said.
"Had those protocols been followed after this test, this incident would not have occurred," he said.
After the crash test, NHTSA found a coolant leak and moved the damaged Volt to a back lot, where it was exposed to the elements, said Rob Peterson, a GM spokesman who specializes in electric cars. Exposure to the weather caused the coolant to crystalize, and that, combined with the remaining charge in the battery, were factors, he said.
NHTSA did not drain the battery of energy as called for under GM’s crash procedures. But at the time, GM had not told the agency of its protocols, Peterson said. NHTSA normally drains fuel from gasoline-powered cars after crash tests, he said. [Associated Press, 11/11/11, via MSNBC.com]
GM Knows Via OnStar About Any Crash Significant Enough To Compromise The Battery. The Detroit Free Press reported:
Chevrolet dealers have sold about 6,000 Volts, all of which are equipped with the OnStar emergency notification system, said GM spokesman Greg Martin.
"There have been no reports of comparable incidences in the field," GM said in a statement. "With Onstar, GM knows in real time about any crash significant enough to potentially compromise battery integrity."
Since July, GM has implemented a process with first responders that includes depowering of the battery after a severe crash. [Detroit Free Press, 11/26/11]
GM Provided A Fix To Volt Owners. Automotive News reported:
The agency [NHTSA] said that modifications intended to reinforce the Volt’s 435-pound lithium-ion battery pack that General Motors announced on Jan. 5 should "reduce the potential" of the pack catching fire in the days or weeks following a crash.
Company executives [at GM] say the voluntary fix will make the car "safer" by reinforcing the steel surrounding the battery pack to prevent it from being punctured during a crash. It also will add a sensor to the battery pack to monitor coolant leaks.
GM is asking its 8,000 Volt customers to visit their Chevy dealership to have the work done. Dealers will be ready to perform the work starting in February, GM said. [Automotive News, 1/20/12]
NHTSA Concluded Investigation After Finding "No Discernible Defect Trend." Wired’s Autopia blog reported:
Federal regulators have closed their investigation into the Chevrolet Volt, saying they are satisfied with the steps General Motors has taken to protect the car’s lithium-ion battery and minimize the risk of a fire in the days and weeks after a severe crash.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posted an explanation and summary of its inquiry on Friday and announced the conclusion of the investigation it launched Nov. 25.
"The agency’s investigation has concluded that no discernible defect trend exists and that the vehicle modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts," the feds said in a statement.
The statement adds, "Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe that Chevy Volts or other electric vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles."
The findings vindicate General Motors, which always argued the Chevrolet Volt is safe, and electric vehicle advocates who argued that the inquiry was much ado about very little. [Wired, Autopia, 1/20/12]
Auto Analyst: "The Fire Concerns Are More Media Hype Than Problem … The Volt Is Very Safe." The Washington Times reported:
Peter DeLorenzo, a Detroit-based auto analyst who has driven the vehicle, says the fire concerns are more media hype than problem for GM.
"Let’s be realistic. These battery fires happened after severe crashes; it’s not fender benders," Mr. DeLorenzo said. "It has nothing to do with Volts spontaneously combusting somewhere. Unfortunately, in this 24/7 instant-media-connection era we live in, all people will take away is Volts catching fire. They don’t read beyond that. I think the Volt is very safe, and the technology is very safe." [The Washington Times, 12/4/11]
Around 250,000 Conventional Cars Catch Fire In Real-Life Every Year. Brad Plumer wrote on The Washington Post’s WonkBlog:
[E]lectric cars have recently had to endure panicky headlines over safety, after three separate Volt batteries caught fire in crash tests. On the technical merits, this wasn’t a huge worry: The batteries caught fire days or weeks after extreme crash testing in the laboratory, and even then the fires only broke out because post-crash procedures weren’t followed. As MSNBC’s Dan Carney snarks, "The lesson here is to get out of a crashed car within a few days, and be sure to turn off the lights when exiting." There was also the little-noted fact that, as government statistics show (PDF), some 250,000 gas-powered vehicles catch fire in real-life settings every year. [Washington Post’s WonkBlog, 1/9/12]
Conservative Media: The Volt Is "Killing People" By "Catching Fire"
O’Reilly And Dobbs Suggest Volts Spontaneously "Catch Fire." On The O’Reilly Factor, Lou Dobbs said the Volt "doesn’t work" because "it doesn’t go fast and go far on electricity. What happens is it catches fire … This is considered a negative when we’re trying to move an automobile." O’Reilly then repeatedly said that the Volts "catch fire" without mentioning that the fire only happened during a crash test. [Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor, 1/6/12]
Fox’s Cavuto: Electric Car Owners Are "Killing People With Batteries That Blow Up." On Neil Cavuto’s Fox Business show, he said the Volt is "a plug-in that blows up. The battery heats up. It’s killing people. It’s maiming them. Children are afraid. Animals avoid it. Puppies don’t want to go anywhere near it." Cavuto later criticized electric car owners for "killing people with batteries that blow up." [Fox Business, Cavuto, 12/8/11, via Nexis]
BigGovernment: Volt "Has A Tendency To Catch On Fire While Sitting In The Garages" Of Its Owners. From a post at Andrew Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com:
To date, Obama has spent approximately $3,000,000,000.00 subsidizing Volts. And what have the American people gotten in return? A car that only a handful of people want and that has a tendency to catch on fire while sitting in the garages of the few purchasers Obama’s been able to scrounge up. [BigGovernment, 12/22/11]
Fox Business Guest Suggests Volts "Blow Up" In Real-Life. From Fox Business’ The Willis Report:
MATT MCCALL, PENN FINANCIAL: Nobody’s buying these Volts! That’s the only good thing. You know, six people had their engine blow up because only six people bought the darn Volt. [Fox Business, The Willis Report, 12/7/11]
Gateway Pundit Blog: Volt Is A "Fire Trap." In a blog post at Gateway Pundit titled "Volt Fire Trap Is WORST Product Of The Year," Andrea Ryan wrote, "Guess what? If it catches fire it’s probably not going to sell well." Ryan then posted this picture of a car on fire — presumably a conventional car that caught on fire in real-life conditions:
[Gateway Pundit, 1/4/12]
Some Mainstream Outlets Have Also Misled On Crash Test Fires
Wash. Post Editorial Misled Readers About Crash Test Fires. In a recent editorial, The Washington Post said that "the Volt brand is suffering from news that some of its batteries burst into flames after government road tests." However, the fires occurred after crash tests. [Media Matters, 1/5/12]
CBS: "Fires Have Been Breaking Out In" Chevy Volts. In a December 7 news brief, CBS suggested that the fires were spontaneously breaking out or had been observed in real-life:
ASHLEY MORRISON: Well, GM thinks it knows– knows why fires have been breaking out in its electric Chevy Volts. The auto makers say coolant leaks may be to blame for causing electrical shorts. The government is investigating, but the Transportation Department says the vehicle is safe to drive. GM is offering refunds to dissatisfied customers. [CBS, CBS Morning News, 12/7/11, via Nexis]
Conservative Media Baselessly Accuse Regulators Of "Favoritism"
House Republicans Accuse Regulators Of Hiding Fire For Months For Political Reasons. The New York Times reported: "House Republicans accused the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday of trying to keep secret a battery fire in a Chevy Volt out of fear of damaging the value of the government’s investment in the car’s manufacturer, General Motors, and jeopardizing President Obama’s re-election prospects." [New York Times, 1/25/12]
Fox’s Asman: "Call Us Conspiratorial, But" NHTSA "Backed Off" Volt Investigation Due To "Favoritism." On his Fox Business show, David Asman said:
ASMAN: You might think a company coming out of bankruptcy would want to reconsider pushing something nobody wants, but GM is fully committed to continuing with the Volt line. Why? Call us conspiratorial, but we still think there’ a government connection. Just look at the way that the Chevy Volt skirted by regulators over its battery fires. U.S. federal safety inspectors just decided to drop its investigations after some heavy-duty government testing. We think it’s good that the government regulators backed off, but when was the last time this administration backed off any regulatory fight? If this had been any other car model would the super regulators at the Traffic Safety Administration have backed off? We doubt it.
Favoritism? Absolutely. The point is there is no payoff to the Volt unless the government, which is still the biggest single owner of GM, is going to do everything possible to help it continue, even if there is no final payoff in the marketplace. [Fox Business, Power and Money, 1/23/12, via Nexis]
Cavuto Suggests Administration Glossed Over Volt Problems Because It Supports The Technology. From Cavuto’s Fox Business show:
CAVUTO: You know what’s interesting too, I mean, we got into these investigations. They want to start on when we knew the Volt was such a problem (INAUDIBLE) vehicle and exactly what we did about it. But it follows the theme where even if we know there are problems we gloss them over. The administration and others who are supporting this technology gloss them over to the degree that they were going in and out of legality here.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Right now we have some of the facts and it doesn’t look good but our committee has an obligation to make sure we get it fully –
CAVUTO: When you say it doesn’t look good though, congressman, by that and I have heard from others and maybe you just can’t confirm this one way or the other because it is silly, that almost from the get go government authorities knew and maybe GM itself acknowledge that there were these battery issues. That it was unreliable and you couldn’t get the same readings out of them, either in the cold with affected mileage and wore out very quickly or under duress conditions when heat, when it could potentially ignite.
In other words, a lot of that was kept from not only those who would ultimately buy the car but from those who were endorsing the car, the taxpayer money to support that technology.
ISSA: We believe that is true. [Fox Business, Cavuto, 1/17/12, via Nexis]
In Fact, NHTSA Was Gathering More Evidence
NHTSA Rarely Opens Investigation After One Incident And No Real-Life Incidents. Detroit News reported:
NHTSA said it rarely opens an investigation after just one incident.
"Because the Volt incident involved a potential risk in newly emerging technology, NHTSA proceeded to open this investigation based only upon the results of limited test data and without waiting for data from real-world incidents," Strickland’s letter said. [Detroit News, 1/14/12, via Nexis]
NHTSA: It Would Have Been Irresponsible To Announce Fire Without More Information. The New York Times reported:
”You wait six months before you start an investigation, and two weeks after you start an investigation the secretary says it’s fine, and you think that’s normal?” he asked David L. Strickland, the administrator of the safety agency.
Mr. Strickland said it took time to determine that the Volt’s battery was responsible for the fire, which occurred three weeks after a side-impact crash test in May and happened when no one was around to see it. And it took weeks to reproduce the event, he said. If his agency had to disclose every allegation of safety problems, it would make 40,000 such disclosures a year, he said.
”It is irresponsible, and frankly illegal, for us to tell the public there is something wrong with the car if we don’t know what it is,” Mr. Strickland said. ”I don’t disclose to the public anything we find that we don’t have proof is a risk to safety.”
Mr. Strickland of the highway traffic agency said most investigations were started after calls to the agency’s phone hot line, warranty claims or accidents, but there were none of those in the case of the Volt’s battery. And the fire burned three cars when no one was around to see; it took time to establish that the fire originated in the Volt and wasn’t arson, he said. [New York Times, 1/25/12]
Detroit Free Press: "Issa Has Offered No Evidence That NHTSA … Suppressed" Evidence. From a Detroit Free Press editorial:
California Republican Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, is miffed that NHTSA didn’t mention the battery fire when he held hearings earlier this fall to determine whether higher fuel economy standards are encouraging automakers or the federal agencies who oversee them to cut corners on safety. But Issa has offered no evidence that NHTSA, which first brought the test results to light last November, suppressed them to boost the Volt’s so-far disappointing sales. [Detroit Free Press, 12/11/11]
Conservative Commentator: These Claims Are Simply "Hysteria." Frank Beckmann, a radio talk show host and climate change contrarian, wrote in an op-ed at The Detroit News:
The [Volt crash test] events sparked nationwide hyperventilation, none worse than that of U.S. Rep, Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who wants to investigate because these reports of Volt fires "indicate important safety information may have been omitted in testimony before our committee just a few weeks ago."
Lost on the congressman is the reality that investigators still aren’t sure exactly what happened in these extreme NHTSA tests, and that he and his legion of elected second guessers would become even more apoplectic if GM or government officials appeared to testify with less than complete information. [Detroit News, 12/16/11] [WJR, The Frank Beckmann Show, 2009, via YouTube] [WJR, accessed 1/25/12]
NY Times Business Columnist: "I Haven’t Seen Any Evidence That The Agency Acted In Anything But A Professional And Independent Way." Business columnist James B. Stewart wrote:
[S]ome Republican congressmen questioned whether the Obama administration had concealed the results. And conspiracy theorists and others have taken to the Internet to argue that the agency has been too soft on G.M. and has a motive to soft-pedal or even distort the results because of the government’s ownership stake.
Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts consulting firm, claimed the government’s Volt crash report was little more than a ”sales pitch” for the plug-in hybrid vehicle.
Others have suggested that the agency was too tough, even if subliminally, in an effort to forestall any perception of a conflict, and that the danger of a Volt catching fire was remote.
Car and Driver magazine noted that the Volt’s batteries caught fire three weeks and one week after the crash tests, and said that ”if you ask us, even just one day is plenty of time to safely exit a vehicle that’s in peril of burning.” The magazine noted that no Volts had caught fire in the real world and that only three safety complaints showed up in the government’s database for all of 2010 and 2011, none involving fire hazards. ”No vehicle is completely and infallibly safe,” the magazine said. The risk of fire following a crash in an electric car also appears to be vastly less than in a conventional gas-powered vehicle.
Tim Massad, assistant Treasury secretary for financial stability, told me this week that Treasury, which oversees the government’s investment, ”is not G.M. or Chrysler’s regulator and has no involvement with N.H.T.S.A.” I haven’t seen any evidence that the agency acted in anything but a professional and independent manner with respect to the Volt, but the controversy illustrates why even appearances of a conflict need to be avoided. [New York Times, 1/13/12]