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GM contacting Chevrolet Volt owners as NHTSA investigates battery fire

Mon, 28 Nov 2011

General Motors on Monday said it is contacting all owners of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid to reassure them that the car is safe as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigates a battery fire from a Volt that was crash-tested.

GM said any Volt owner who had safety concerns would be offered a different GM car as a loaner vehicle. Executives also stressed during a teleconference that the battery issues were seen only in vehicles in the crash tests.

NHSTA is opening a formal safety-defect investigation on the risk of fire in Volts that have been involved in serious crashes.

In May, NHTSA crashed a Volt in a test measuring occupant protection in a side-collision accident. During the test, the vehicle's battery was damaged, and a coolant line ruptured. Three weeks later, a fire occurred in that test vehicle, and NHTSA concluded it was the battery damage that caused the fire.

On Monday, GM officials said the fire started because power was left in the crashed Volt's battery pack. GM says it has developed procedures that call for depowering the Volt's battery pack following a crash.

Last week, in an effort to re-create the May test, NHTSA conducted three tests in which the battery packs were intentionally damaged and coolant lines intentionally ruptured. The results were as follows, according to NHTSA:

"Following a test on Nov. 16 that did not result in a fire, a temporary increase in temperature was recorded in a test on Nov. 17. During the test conducted on Nov. 18 using similar protocols, the battery pack was rotated within hours after it was impacted and began to smoke and emit sparks shortly after rotation to 180 degrees. NHTSA's forensic analysis of the Nov. 18 fire incident is continuing this week."

NHTSA adds that the agency is not aware of any crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in the Volt.

GM PRESS RELEASE: GM Builds on Battery Safety to Ensure Confidence in Chevrolet Volt

General Motors announced Monday initiatives for customer satisfaction and battery safety research to ensure ongoing confidence in the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle.

The initiatives follow six months of research and testing in the United States with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration designed to induce electric vehicle battery failure after severe crash situations.

The agency advised GM on Friday that it would open a preliminary evaluation of Volt battery assemblies after NHTSA test results caused electrical fires up to three weeks after an initial vehicle New Car Assessment Program side pole crash test.

Mark Reuss, president, GM North America, said the company would take every precaution to assure the driving public of GM's commitment to the safety of the Volt being handled after a severe incident and the total satisfaction of everyone who owned one.

“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.”

Senior GM engineering investigation team

Mary Barra, senior vice president, Global Product Development, said GM had established a senior engineering team to develop changes to eliminate concern of potential post-crash electrical fires and work with industry to ensure appropriate electric vehicle protocols were in place. Barra said such electrical fires had not occurred on public roads and NHTSA was not investigating any such potential imminent failure on the roads.

“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.”

Barra said the team would continue to work closely with NHTSA, suppliers, dealers and manufacturing teams to initiate any necessary changes as soon as possible.

Volt owner loan program

Reuss said GM would establish a Volt owner satisfaction program. Any Volt owner concerned about safety can contact his or her Volt advisor to arrange for a free GM vehicle loan until resolution of the issue.

“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.”

By Julie Alvin