GM moves to address electric vehicle battery safety concerns

Summary:Automaker will make modifications to protect the Volt's battery housing. It hasn't announced an outright recall but Volt owners will have the opportunity to enhance their cars, if desired.

After weeks of consideration -- and a year-end battery recall situation for luxury electric vehicle maker Fisker Karma -- General Motors is moving to make structural "enhancements" to the Chevrolet Volt that should address safety concerns.

GM has been under scrutiny since late November, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that a coolant leak potentially had caused a vehicle fire three weeks later. At the time, NHTSA said it needed to further investigate the cause, although it was careful to state that it was not aware of any similar incidents in the real world. GM staunchly declared that it stood by the safety of its technology.

Its move today isn't exactly a recall. It is voluntary "Customer Satisfaction Program," centering on enhancements that the company plans to make to the Chevy Volt vehicle structure. Those modifications (illustrated in the graphic) include strengthening the structure to better protect the battery pack in a collision, adding a sensor in the battery coolant reservoir in order to monitor coolant levels, and adding a tamper-resistant bracket to the top of the reservoir to help prevent overfill.

Said Mary Barra, senior vice president of global product development for GM:

"These enhancements and modifications will address the concerns raised by the severe crash tests. There are no changes to the Volt battery pack or cell chemistry as a result of these actions. We have tested the Volt's battery system for more than 285,000 hours, or 25 years, of operation. We're as confident as ever that the cell design is among the safest on the market."

As the modifications become commercially ready, probably in about a month, Volt customers will be notified and given the option to make them. Dealers will be able to make the changes to their inventory. What the company doesn't say is who will pay for them; although it is unlikely that the roughly 8,000 or so Volt owners driving the electric vehicle will be asked to bear the cost.

An NHTSA statement released in response to GM's announcement indicated that the agency would continue to investigate the causes of the fires that had raised its concern. The agency said: "Preliminary results of the crash test indicate the remedy proposed by General Motors today should address the issue of battery intrusion."

It is good that GM is addressing this so quickly, especially since electric vehicle sales have so far failed to live up to the expectations built up early in 2011. The best-selling model, the Nissan Leaf, has only managed to deliver 10,000 in the United States (the global number is 22,000).

GM and the NHTSA also have pointed out repeatedly that no major incidents have been reported off the test roadway. I sort of wonder whether that is because electric vehicle owners are super-cautious or whether perhaps they aren't driving them as much on highways at the speeds associated with severe crashes.

Either way, it is important to remember that electric vehicles are a very new category of consumer product and there will definitely be some hiccups along the way as the technology is put to the real test in the real world. But we have to keep things in perspective. Seriously, I have received at least one serious recall notice for my four-year-old vehicle and it hasn't nearly gotten the attention that the Volt incident received.

Topics: Hardware, Emerging Tech

About

Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist specializing in transformative technology and innovation. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. In a past corporate life, Heather was editor of Computer Reseller News. She started her journalism lif... Full Bio

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