NHTSA opens formal safety investigation for Chevy Volts and its lithium-ion batteries

Earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that a test Chevrolet Volt vehicle used in its NCAP crash test in May caught fire three weeks later, causing the agency to question the safety of lithium-ion battery powered electric-cars.

The NHTSA now says that it has opened a formal safety defect investigation to assess the risk of fire in Volts that have been involved in a serious crash.

“Since that fire incident, NHTSA has taken a number of steps to gather additional information about the potential for fire in electric vehicles involved in a crash, including working with the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense-in close coordination with experts from General Motors-to complete rigorous tests of the Volt’s lithium-ion batteries,” NHTSA said in a statement.

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A snippet from NHTSA’s statement:

In an effort to recreate the May test, NHTSA conducted three tests last week on the Volt’s lithium-ion battery packs that intentionally damaged the battery compartment and ruptured the vehicle’s coolant line. Following a test on November 16 that did not result in a fire, a temporary increase in temperature was recorded in a test on November 17. During the test conducted on November 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 November 18 fire incident is continuing this week. Yesterday, the battery pack that was tested on November 17 and that had been continually monitored since the test caught fire at the testing facility. The agency is currently working with DOE, DOD, and GM to assess the cause and implications of yesterday’s fire. In each of the battery tests conducted in the past two weeks, the Volt’s battery was impacted and rotated to simulate a real-world, side-impact collision into a narrow object such as a tree or a pole followed by a rollover.

NHTSA is not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. However, the agency is concerned that damage to the Volt’s batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire. NHTSA is therefore opening a safety defect investigation of Chevy Volts, which could experience a battery-related fire following a crash. Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern.

While it is too soon to tell whether the investigation will lead to a recall of any vehicles or parts, if NHTSA identifies an unreasonable risk to safety, the agency will take immediate action to notify consumers and ensure that GM communicates with current vehicle owners.

– By: Omar Rana