Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Alert doesn't stifle enthusiasm for Volt

Local owners are confident they can manage the risk of battery fire

Staff WriterNovember 29, 2011 

Mark Reuss, the president of General Motors North America, took pains Monday to assure Wade Ponder that his Chevy Volt will not burn up and kill him.

He need not have worried, because Ponder is not worried.

Reuss wrote a letter to Ponder and the other 5,328 Volt owners after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made GM's plug-in gas-electric hybrid car the focus of a new safety defect investigation.

The study will determine whether the Volt is likely to catch fire after its lithium-ion battery is damaged in a crash. That's just what happened after NHTSA crash tests twice this year.

"The Volt is a safe car," Reuss wrote.

Ponder is thrilled to be driving one of the first generation of plug-in cars. He is unfazed by the safety investigation.

"I'm not at all concerned about it," Ponder, a retired chemical engineer who lives in North Raleigh, told the Road Worrier. "I feel perfectly safe."

Ostensibly, there seems to be little cause for alarm. No fires have been reported after actual highway crashes involving the Volt. And no Volts were involved in the 215,500 car fires across the United States last year.

But General Motors doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of Ford executives accused in the 1970s of hiding a deadly defect in the Ford Pinto. By the time Ford recalled the car in 1978, 28 people had died after Pinto gas tanks exploded in fiery rear-end crashes.

A new safety scare could set back industry and government hopes that thousands of Americans will switch to the Volt and other electric cars over the coming decade.

Days after the crash

Gas-fueled car fires usually erupt within moments of impact, when a spark meets leaking fumes. But as Americans start driving plug-ins such as the Volt (which also has a gas tank) and the Nissan Leaf (which doesn't), we may have more to learn about fire hazards that can arise days and weeks after a crash.

In June, a Volt parked at a NHTSA test site in Wisconsin burst into flames and burned other cars nearby, three weeks after it had been bashed and overturned in a side-impact test. NHTSA blamed the fire on heat buildup in a damaged battery pack with a ruptured coolant line.

A second Volt battery caught fire on Thanksgiving Day at a Virginia lab, seven days after it was damaged in a test designed to recreate the June fire.

Reuss and other GM executives said in a conference call with reporters Monday that a Volt battery must be drained of its energy ("depowered," in GM jargon) after it is damaged in a crash. That's not something a driver can do, and it can't even be done at the crash site, they said.

"The real question is about how to deal with the battery days after a severe crash, making it a matter of interest not just for the Volt, but for our entire industry," Reuss said.

GM is refining procedures and training sessions so car dealers, garages, first responders, tow-truck drivers and junk-yard operators can easily eliminate battery fire hazards. Mary Barra, a senior vice president who oversees product development for GM, said the fire risk does not occur immediately.

"This condition should not exist until days after a crash," Barra said.

Reuss offered a free loaner car to "any Volt customer who remains the least bit concerned" while NHTSA assesses the risks of driving a Volt.

No thanks, Ponder said.

"I don't feel any fear," said Ponder, 71. "I feel it is as safe as any car can be."

Rusty Parks of Cary bought a Nissan Leaf last week, with a battery even bigger than the Volt's. He lived through the Pinto scare - he owned a Pinto - and he's not worried now. "I know that with any new technology, there are some risks," said Parks, 56. "I don't see the risk with a lithium-ion battery being any more of a problem than an undetected leak in a gasoline tank after a crash."

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