by Shuana Theel, cross-posted from Media Matters
Conservative media have misrepresented the results of Chevy Volt crash tests, claiming the batteries “blow up” and are a “fire trap,” and suggesting that fires have occurred spontaneously during use. In fact, fires only occurred after crash tests and regulators concluded an inquiry after finding that Volts are just as safe as conventional cars.
Regulators Concluded Inquiry After Finding Volts Are Just As Safe As Conventional Cars
Battery Fire Happened Weeks After Pole Crash Test And Rollover Test. From the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s description of the test:
During an NCAP [New Car Assessment Program] oblique side pole impact test conducted by NHTSA in May 2011, the pole struck and deformed the sill plate under the driver’s door at a location where there is a structural member. The lateral member displaced inward, pierced the HV battery enclosure and battery, and caused a battery coolant leak. Thereafter, the Agency conducted a rollover test (the rollover test consists of four 90-degree rotate-and-hold movements about the vehicle’s longitudinal axis). In that test, the HV battery and electronics were exposed to coolant that leaked as a result of the crash. The vehicle fire that occurred three weeks later and the additional testing NHTSA conducted are discussed in a report titled “2011 Chevrolet Volt Battery Fire Incident Report” a copy of which is available in the public file. The report indicates that intrusion induced coolant leakage, and subsequent rollover that saturates electronic components, were the only test conditions which resulted in a subject vehicle HV battery fire. [NHTSA, 1/26/12]
CNN: “No Fires Were Reported In Cars That People Were Actually Driving.” CNN’s Erin Burnett made clear that fires had only occurred in crash tests, not real-life scenarios:
ERIN BURNETT: Investigators did not find a safety defect. They also supported GM’s fix, which reinforces the structure surrounding the battery. No fires were reported in cars that people were actually driving. This came from crash tests. [CNN, Out Front with Erin Burnett, 1/20/12]
NHTSA Did Not Drain Battery After Crash, As GM Protocols Require. From an Associated Press report:
General Motors spokesman Greg Martin said the test did not follow procedures developed by GM engineers for handling the Volt after a crash. The engineers tested the Volt’s battery pack for more than 300,000 hours to come up with the procedures, which include discharge and disposal of the battery pack, he said.
“Had those protocols been followed after this test, this incident would not have occurred,” he said.
After the crash test, NHTSA found a coolant leak and moved the damaged Volt to a back lot, where it was exposed to the elements, said Rob Peterson, a GM spokesman who specializes in electric cars. Exposure to the weather caused the coolant to crystalize, and that, combined with the remaining charge in the battery, were factors, he said.
NHTSA did not drain the battery of energy as called for under GM’s crash procedures. But at the time, GM had not told the agency of its protocols, Peterson said. NHTSA normally drains fuel from gasoline-powered cars after crash tests, he said. [Associated Press, 11/11/11, via MSNBC.com]
GM Knows Via OnStar About Any Crash Significant Enough To Compromise The Battery. The Detroit Free Press reported:
Chevrolet dealers have sold about 6,000 Volts, all of which are equipped with the OnStar emergency notification system, said GM spokesman Greg Martin.
“There have been no reports of comparable incidences in the field,” GM said in a statement. “With Onstar, GM knows in real time about any crash significant enough to potentially compromise battery integrity.”
Since July, GM has implemented a process with first responders that includes depowering of the battery after a severe crash. [Detroit Free Press, 11/26/11]
GM Provided A Fix To Volt Owners. Automotive News reported:
The agency [NHTSA] said that modifications intended to reinforce the Volt’s 435-pound lithium-ion battery pack that General Motors announced on Jan. 5 should “reduce the potential” of the pack catching fire in the days or weeks following a crash.
Company executives [at GM] say the voluntary fix will make the car “safer” by reinforcing the steel surrounding the battery pack to prevent it from being punctured during a crash. It also will add a sensor to the battery pack to monitor coolant leaks.
GM is asking its 8,000 Volt customers to visit their Chevy dealership to have the work done. Dealers will be ready to perform the work starting in February, GM said. [Automotive News, 1/20/12]
Shauna Theel is a researcher with Media Matters. This is an abridged version of a piece published at Media Matters. You can find the entire piece here.