Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

Summary: The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is investigating whether lithium-ion batteries are the culprit behind several crash test fires.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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Just what the green-tech industry needed, another reason to wonder about whether electric vehicles are really worth the investment. Worse yet, whether they represent your safest possible mode of transportation.

Several major media outlets, including BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal, reported this week on some questionable crash test results conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). On Nov. 25, NHTSA said it was conducting an investigation into the cause of fires that occurred during crash tests being conducted by the organization.

The agency concluded that the lithium-ion batteries in the vehicles could be the culprit. It noted in a statement released Nov. 25:

"NHTSA is not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. However, the agency is concerned that damage to the Volt's batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have result in fire. NHTSA is therefore opening a safety defect investigation of Chevy Volts, which could experience a battery-related fire during a crash. Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern."

In various articles covering the situation, GM said it stands behind the design and safety of the Volt. It has developed a feature to depower batteries after crashes, a procedure that apparently was not followed in the NHTSA crash tests. Still, the company sent out a letter to all Volt owners -- there are about 6,000 of them -- letting them know that they can get a vehicle loaner to drive until the matter is resolved.

In a conference call to discuss the issue, GM North America chief Mark Reuss said:

"This technology should inspire confidence and pride, not doubt and concern. I believe in the safety of the Volt. The primary focus is on the confidence and concerns of our paying customers."

I have to wonder whether this danger is any more real or serious than the danger that occurs when gasoline is heated to super high temperatures during crashes. Not that I'm trying to belittle the issue, and it is certainly one that needs to be explore throughly and quickly. But it is worth noting that the other car held up as a mainstream electric vehicle choice -- the Nissan Leaf -- has a steel incasement around its battery to ward off the threat of fire.

While GM addresses the situation, this week also saw two other automotive makers, Toyota Motor Corp. and BMW AG, declare plans to jointly develop lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. The two hope to speed innovation by working together.

I'm sure that they'll also be taking safety considerations close to heart after this week's coverage of GM's troubles. At least I sure hope they do.

Topic: Hardware

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  • RE: Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

    Not one fire has happened in the real world, yet your plural use of the word ???fires??? in the headline makes it sound as if these vehicles are burning up all over the place.
    clcrockett
    • RE: Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

      @ccrockett@...

      .... well, since the NHTSA testS resulted in more than one fire and the plural of fire is fireS, I'd say using the word fires in the headline is indeed accurate.
      whatagenda
    • Because, of course, we should all just ignore that safety tests and wait

      until a car full of people catches fire on a busy road. Then we can finally admit how stupid it is to put hundreds of pounds of a highly toxic, flammable metal in an automobile.
      baggins_z
      • RE: Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

        @baggins_z

        Yes, because Gasoline is so much safer than Lithium.

        (that was sarcasm, in case it wasn't obvious enough :)

        As far as I know, the only fire result so far was in a car left with it's batteries engaged for 3 WEEKS after crash testing before it caught fire.

        Honestly, I think the gas tank and ICE in the Volt is far more dangerous in a crash than the Lithium batteries.
        jessespears
      • Yes, gasoline is much safer than lithium. Learn some chemistry.

        And, of course, a vehicle that spontaneously catches fires weeks after everyone thinks its safe is proof of how harmless the batteries are. Sheesh. It is true that environmentalism results in stupidty. Or perhaps the stupid part comes first.
        baggins_z
  • It's not about cars

    Let's face it: lithium-ion batteries could use some work. They've overheated in laptops, in cell phones... are we really surprised they can overheat in a car?

    Like the use of gasoline, this is a technology we have learned to live with, in spite of the risks. Doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to find the source of the overheating and change the manufacturing processes to reduce the incidence of fire.
    Robert Hahn
  • RE: Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

    NHTSA needs to update their crash test. ANY brand of car can catch on fire in a wreck if there is a fuel spill. I don't see those manufacturers recalling their cars when one of their cars is in a wreck and catches on fire. This Chevy Volt fire occurred THREE weeks AFTER the test. The crash test experts didn't THINK to check the batteries for cracks after their test ..... or remove them before the test... do you REALLY think crash tests on gasoline cars is done with a full or half tank of gas... think again... the gas tank is empty! The news media won't print the ENTIRE truth because THAT is not a sensational story (and it won't sell newspapers).
    jackie_gt
  • RE: Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

    New technology always gets nit picked.
    Even if it really is safer than what it replaces.
    MoeFugger
  • RE: Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

    "Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?"

    As opposed to what, gasoline tanks?

    "This technology should inspire confidence and pride, not doubt and concern."

    Nothing's perfect. That's just the nature of the universe we live in.
    CobraA1
  • Or, to put it another way...

    ...is the Chevy Volt safe? GM has a very poor tack record with new technology. I would not write off electric vehicles in general, but would not have the Volt on my list were I in the market for an electric car.
    itpro_z
  • RE: Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

    Ummm.....iirc, the fire occurred quite a time after the crash test, not during it.
    TKR1
  • RE: Chevy Volt fires have some asking: Are electric vehicle batteries safe?

    In 2010, there were over 184,000 gasoline fires in cars, resulting in over 280 deaths. Since the Volt has been released, there have been no fires, resulting in no deaths. That is none, as in zero, nadda, zip, nil. In fact, there have been no reported fatalities in Volt collisions since their release. Even the family of 4 in a Volt that got smashed by a school bus suffered only a couple scratches.
    WVhybrid