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NHTSA Opens New Safety Investigation Into Chevrolet Volt Battery Fires

November 28, 2011

WASHINGTON – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it will open a formal safety defect investigation in order to assess the risk of a battery-related fire in Chevrolet Volts that have been involved in serious crashes.

On Monday, Nov. 28, General Motors issued a response to NHTSA’s announcement, saying that it is launching new initiatives for “customer satisfaction and battery safety research to ensure ongoing confidence in the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle.”

Update: General Motors told Automotive Fleet that fleet managers and contacts at any fleet management companies should contact their GM Fleet Account executive or the GM Fleet Action Center. They will handle each request on an individual basis.

Both of these announcements follow earlier statements from NHTSA and GM regarding the initial announcement of the potential for battery-related fires after crashes.

NHTSA stated it conducted three tests in mid-November following the original fire incident in May, 2011. The organization said that in each of the battery tests it conducted during the past two weeks, the Volt’s battery was impacted and rotated to simulate a real-world, side-impact collision into a narrow object such as a tree or a pole followed by a rollover.

Following a test NHTSA conducted on November 16 that did not result in a fire, it recorded a temporary increase in temperature in a test on November 17. During the test NHTSA conducted on November 18 using similar protocols, the battery pack was rotated within hours after it was impacted and it began to smoke and emit sparks shortly after rotation to 180 degrees. On Nov. 24, NHTSA said the battery pack that it had tested on Nov. 17 caught fire at the testing facility.

NHTSA said it’s not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevrolet Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. However, the agency said it’s concerned that the test-related damage to the Volt’s batteries during the three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire. NHTSA said it is therefore opening a safety defect investigation into the Chevrolet Volts, which could experience a battery-related fire following a crash.

Mark Reuss, president, GM North America, commented on the automaker’s plans to assure customers of the Volt’s safety. 

“The Volt is a five-star safety car. Even though no customer has experienced in the real world what was identified in this latest testing of post-crash situations, we're taking critical steps to ensure customer satisfaction and safety,” Reuss said. “Our customers' peace of mind is too important to us for there to be any concern or any worry. This technology should inspire confidence and pride, not raise any concern or doubt. The question is about how to deal with the battery days and weeks after a severe crash, making it a matter of interest not just for the Volt, but for our industry as we continue to advance the pursuit of electric vehicles.”

Reuss said GM would establish a Volt owner satisfaction program for its retail customers.

“A vehicle loan program of this nature is well beyond the norm for a preliminary investigation, and it underlines our commitment to the vehicle and its owners,” he said. “These steps are the right ones to take regardless of any immediate impact on our operations.”

In addition, Mary Barra, senior vice president, Global Product Development, said the automaker has established a senior engineering team to develop changes that will eliminate any concerns regarding possible battery-related electrical fires after crashes.

“GM and the agency's focus and research continue to be on the performance, handling, storage and disposal of batteries after a crash or other significant event,” she said. “We’re working with NHTSA so we all have an understanding about these risks and how they can be avoided in the future. This isn’t just a Volt issue. We’re already leading a joint electric vehicle activity with Society of Automotive Engineers and other automotive companies to address new issues, such as this protocol of depowering batteries after a severe crash.”

Updated: 10:30 AM, 11/28

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