DETROIT – In response to an investigation of a battery-related fire that occurred during National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash testing of the Chevrolet Volt, General Motors has released a statement:

“First and foremost, I want to make this very clear: the Volt is a safe car,” said Jim Federico, General Motors chief engineer for electric vehicles. “We are working cooperatively with NHTSA as it completes its investigation. However, NHTSA has stated that based on available data, there’s no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gasoline-powered car.”

“We are working with other vehicle manufacturers, first responders, tow truck operators, and salvage associations with the goal of implementing industry-wide protocols.”

NHTSA said in a statement last week that it has investigated an incident involving a fire in a Chevrolet Volt that occurred more than three weeks after the organization had conducted crash tests on the vehicle. The vehicle was involved in NHTSA’s New Car Assessment crash test program on May 12, 2011. The organization concluded that the crash test damaged the Volt’s lithium-ion battery, and that damage led to the fire that occurred later.

NHTSA emphasized that electric vehicles are not more dangerous than regular, gasoline-fueled vehicles:

“Let us be clear: NHTSA does not believe electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than other vehicles. It is common sense that the different designs of electric vehicles will require different safety standards and precautions.”

The organization also emphasized the unique nature of this particular incident:

“That incident — which occurred at the test facility and caused property damage but no injuries — remains the only case of a battery-related fire in a crash or crash test of vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries, despite a number of other rigorous crash tests of the Chevy Volt separately conducted by both NHTSA and General Motors.”

For the sake of comparison, the National Fire Protection Association said that in 2010, there were 184,500 on-highway vehicle fires in the U.S. in 2010 that are associated with traditionally fueled vehicles.

NHTSA stated it will conduct additional testing on the Volt's batteries, but reiterated that it doesn't believe there is an issue here.

"Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles."

NHTSA provided the following safety tips for those dealing with an electric vehicle after a collision:

  • Operators of tow trucks and vehicle storage facilities should ensure the damaged vehicle is kept in an open area instead of a garage or other enclosed building.
  • Drivers should exit the vehicle safely or await the assistance of an emergency responder if they are unable to get out on their own, move a safe distance away from the vehicle, and notify the authorities of the crash.
  • Emergency responders should check a vehicle for markings or other indications that it is electric-powered. If it is, they should exercise caution, per published guidelines, to avoid any possible electrical shock and should disconnect the battery from the vehicle circuits if possible.
  • Emergency responders should also use copious amounts of water if fire is present or suspected and keeping in mind that fire can occur for a considerable period after a crash should proceed accordingly.
  • Rather than attempt to discharge a propulsion battery, an emergency responder, tow truck operator, or storage facility should contact experts at the vehicle's manufacturer on that subject.
  • Contact a local General Motors dealer with any specific questions.

By Greg Basich

Sources: NHTSA, General Motors