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

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

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.