Electric Car Post-Crash-Test Fire Prompts Federal Investigation

Published November 15, 2011


By Jeff Cobb

NHTSA’s 20-mph pole side-impact crash test.

A Chevrolet Volt that was side-impact tested [1] for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and caught fire three weeks later has prompted the same agency to begin investigating lithium-ion batteries from all makers.

The second Volt now known to have been involved in a fire in early June after the 20-mph impact did not make the press five months ago, and might have gone unreported if not for the investigation just begun.

NHTSA’s full revelation was reported last week, and details included that the fire might have been prevented if it had known to implement GM’s post-crash protocols. In a statement, NHTSA did not raise undue alarm.

“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,” the agency said. “In fact, all vehicles – both electric and gasoline-powered – have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash.”

This GM-Volt said [2] last week when a third Volt was involved in a house fire in North Carolina. Thus far many more internal combustion powered vehicles have burned – 200,000 in the U.S. last year alone. To date no one has been killed by an EV fire which cannot be said of traditional vehicles.

Nonetheless, a higher degree of perceived newsworthiness has emanated from the NHTSA-crashed Volt which spontaneously caught fire while stored in a parking lot, and ignited nearby cars as well.

The news sent GM’s stock as much as 3 percent lower on Friday, and it closed 1 percent down while the market as a whole climbed two percent.

It is the newness of EVs that has people concerned, because unknown is what worse might happen. The mystery has been removed from internal combustion vehicles, but not so with EVs.

NHTSA said it is now working with all automakers on post-crash procedures to better ensure safety for electrified vehicle occupants and emergency personnel who arrive at crash scenes.

GM is cooperating and taking its own steps in kind, said Jim Federico, GM’s chief engineer for electric vehicles on Friday.

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

While GM is on board with NHTSA’s latest plans, GM spokesman Greg Martin said Friday that the third-party company that conducted the crash tests for NHTSA did not follow a protocol GM’s engineers had already worked out for just such an eventuality.

Specifically, GM has provision to send a team to drain the battery in crashed Volts, said GM Spokesman Rob Peterson. The company did not tell NHTSA about the procedure, however. He said next year GM hopes to have made a battery draining tool more commonly available.

NHTSA is now recommending that damaged EVs be kept in an open area, not an enclosed building or garage, and they should not be left proximal to other vehicles.

It recommends also that tow-truck drivers and salvage-yard workers contact damaged electrified vehicles’ manufacturers rather than attempting to discharge batteries themselves.

Another GM spokesman, Jay Cooney, said subsequent attempts to subject the Volt to crashes and induce another fire have not been able to, so thus far, this crash fire is a one-off event.

The federal standard is actually less severe than the SUV-force side impact testing conducted by [3] the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, and that organization has had no Volt fires.

But this is now the third fire a Volt has been involved in – and the first where the Volt definitely did cause an electrically induced fire.

Following the Connecticut fire in which a Volt was on location, authorities and GM said the car was not at fault [4]. In the case of the North Carolina fire, the Volt was unofficially cleared [5] as not being the ignition source, but whether it contributed to an in-wall electrical fire is yet to be determined.

This latest post-crash fire was presumably due to a ruptured battery, but the exact cause is still under investigation.

“Apparently, there was some cell activity, latent activity that resulted in the fire,” said a NHTSA official. “That cell activity we don’t know.”

Thus far, no Nissan Leafs have been known to have been involved in a fire. Nor have other brands, so regardless of circumstances, GM has had to face these experiences alone. As the maker of the most mass market battery electric automobiles on the road, Nissan issued a statement declaring its EV to be safe.

“All of our systems have been thoroughly tested to ensure real-world performance,” Nissan said in a statement. “To date, the more than 8,000 Nissan Leafs driving on the U.S. roads have performed without reported incident.”

GM says its vehicle is safe as well. The Volt’s 400-pound battery is protected deep within the vehicle.

If further precautions – such as government-mandated discharging –or other engineering is deemed necessary for electrified vehicles, it is being said that this incident leading to the NHTSA investigation may bring that out.