Volt Fire Puts Lithium-Ion Batteries Under Safety Spotlight

A Chevy Volt that caught fire in the parking lot of a crash test site has prompted a federal probe over the safety and protocol of handling lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles.

The investigation will include automakers GM, Nissan, Ford and other manufacturers planning to sell vehicles with lithium-ion batteries.

The fire that sparked the probe took place in May in the parking lot of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing center. The Chevy Volt had undergone a side-impact pole test three weeks earlier. General Motors told Bloomberg that had the safety procedures for dealing with the lithium-ion battery pack been followed, the fire would not have occurred.

The test crash cracked the battery pack, according to Green Car Reports. Typically after a crash, according to GM representatives speaking to the Associated Press, the battery is drained after a crash test, much like fuel is drained from gasoline-powered cars after the exercises. In this case, though, the battery wasn’t drained and the fire occurred.

GM stressed that the car is otherwise safe, and had protocol been followed the fire could have been prevented. Attempts to replicate the crash on at least two other vehicles did not result in a fire. There have been no complaints about similar problems in any of the approximately 5,000 Volts sold since the car was first released earlier in this year.

A competitor in the U.S. lithium-ion battery powered electric car industry, Nissan’s Leaf, was also introduced in 2011 and has sold about 8,000 units compared to Volt’s 5,000. The Leaf hasn’t been reported in a similar battery-pack fueled fire.

GM did not respond to TechNewsWorlds’ requests for comment.

Just Checking

“This type of investigation is not particularly common, but mostly because this type of investigation is specific to the drivetrain. I suspect that it will be more likely with new drivetrains like electric vehicles and fuel cells in the future,” Dave Hurst, senior analyst at Pikes Research and with GigaOM Pro, told TechNewsWorld.

The investigations are also helpful for regulators who aim to educate first responders to crash scenes. Regulation agencies are looking for tips to pass on to medical and emergency staff who might not be familiar with electric vehicle safety.

If anything comes from the federal probe, it’s likely to be tighter restrictions on safety or manufacturing methods.

“If this was a problem with the way this was architected, it might lead to an acceleration of better protection mechanisms. There’s been a lot of activity on the lithium-ion and it’s not necessarily unstable, but it has to be kept under some tighter parameters,” Daron Gifford, managing director of Stellar Alliance, told TechNewsWorld.

Dent in Lithium-Ion Car Sales?

“Current owners are likely to come to the defense of electric vehicles in light of this, because they are early adopters and many are fanatic in the support of EVs. Potential owners will likely see what they want to see in it. Those who are not fans of electric vehicles will use this as a handy excuse, those who are fans will downplay its significance,” said Hurst.

In the follow-up investigation, delays could hit upcoming vehicle launches or further investment in lithium-ion technology. The fire was enough to prompt increased investigation on safety protocols, but probably not enough to put a dent in electric vehicle sales overall.

“How GM and the NHTSA handle the aftermath of this fire will dictate whether there is a lasting impact on sales. However, any sales impact would likely not be felt by the industry as a whole, but rather by the Chevrolet Volt and GM specifically,” said Hurst.

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