Chevy Volt Battery Fires Could Prove a Setback for Electric Cars, But Let's Not Panic

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Regulators are Investigating Battery Safety Issues

Now's not the best time for battery-powered products. Anyone reading the media would be led to believe that they are catching fire at the drop of a hat; There was the iPhone combusting spontaneously in a plane in Australia, some laptops that blew up, and now the Chevrolet Volt has been in the news because two battery packs caught fire after crash tests by regulators, and another one emitted sparks after being damaged. This led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to begin a safety defect probe, and GM to offer free loaners to any Volt owners who would like one because of safety concerns.

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Details on the Volt Battery Problems

Here is what the NHTSA has released about the tests that caused battery fires:

This past May, NHTSA crashed a Chevy Volt in an NCAP test designed to measure the vehicle's ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. During that test, the vehicle's battery was damaged and the coolant line was ruptured. When a fire involving the test vehicle occurred more than three weeks after it was crashed, the agency concluded that the damage to the vehicle's lithium-ion battery during the crash test led to the fire. 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.

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.

Let's Keep Some Perspective...

As you can read above, this isn't a case of: BANG, impact, and then a big Hollywood fireball explosion. This is damage to the battery that wasn't fixed and led to a fire or sparks later. This is still dangerous and all known problems should be fixed and mitigated, but it all goes back to the fact that if you store a lot of readily usable energy in a dense manner, you are risking fires and explosion. It's exactly the same with gasoline and diesel cars, but familiarity has lead us to treat them as relatively safe.

I suspect the same will happen with battery-electric cars. Over time, once there are lots of them on the road and it turns out that they are pretty much as safe as anything else (or possibly safer, after a few generations of incremental improvements), people won't give it a second thought. The same thing more or less happened with hybrids in the past decade. At first they were considered exotic and some people didn't trust them, but since then, cars like the Toyota Prius have become common and unexceptional. This is not surprising since carmakers invest so much into new vehicles that they make sure to test them very thoroughly before they are released. This isn't a perfect process, but it does catch a lot of the worst problems, and it has been getting better over time (modern cars are much safer than cars from a few decades ago).

Careful About Double Standards

So while I am worried about safety for all vehicles, let's not forget that the IIHS gave the Volt "Good" ratings all around, and that the NHTSA gave the Volt 3 five-star ratings, an almost perfect rating.

What I'm afraid of is that enemies of electric cars - those who love the status quo of gas-guzzling vehicles - will use this to create bad PR for EVs, slowing down adoption of a technology that isn't perfect, but that is much better than what we have now. It's still better to walk, bike, or take transit, but if you are going to get a car, it's better for it to run on electricity from a grid that will get progressively cleaner rather than burn fossil fuels.

Safety issues need to be resolved when they are present, but there should not be a double-standard where electric vehicles are scrutinized while the old failing of gasoline and diesel cars are overlooked just because we are more familiar with them. It's also worth remembering that human factors are by far the most important thing when it comes to road safety.


See also: Chevy Volt Offically Rated at 93 MPGe in Electric Mode by EPA

Tags: Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles

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