Chevy Volt problems may have been deferred by NHTSA to protect "fragility of Volt sales" – FOIA demands launched

Here’s an interesting BBC story about the safety hazards associated with the Chevy Volt — specifically, the risk that its battery pack could catch fire after even a minor impact.

But the real problem may no longer be a technical one, but one of dented consumer confidence. Customers are handing back the keys in droves.

At first, when the problem first came to light, chief executive Dan Akerson offered to buy back Volt models from any concerned customers.

Then, when dozens of customers came forward wanting to hand back the keys to their cars, the company changed tack.

Rather than automatically buying back the Volts, and thus losing its as yet tiny army of early adopters of electric motoring technology, GM started offering them some 6,000 free loan cars while awaiting the outcome of an investigation into the fires.

And here’s why:

It now appears the fire hazard was first discovered back in June, when GM first heard about a fire in a Volt that occurred some three weeks after the vehicle had been crash tested.

Yet, almost five months went by before either GM or the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told dealers and customers about the potential risks and urged them to drain the battery pack as soon as possible after an accident.

Part of the reason for delaying the disclosure was the “fragility of Volt sales” up until that point, according to Joan Claybrook, a former administrator at NHTSA.

“NHTSA could have put out a consumer alert,” he said, according to industry website Autoguide.com.

“Not to tell [customers] for six months makes no sense to me. They have a duty to inform people when they’ve rated a vehicle as ‘top rated’ and make it clear there’s a problem.”

While it isn’t surprising that GM was reluctant to announce product safety bulletins that would dampen early sales of its much touted hybrid, according to the linked story the NHTSA was an accessory to this as well, and for the same reason:

“Part of the reason for delaying the disclosure was the ‘fragility of Volt sales’ up until that point, according to Joan Claybrook, a former administrator at NHTSA.”

At Autoguide.com, there’s a story saying that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded today saying the accusations were “absolutely not true.”

“We have opened an investigation into battery-related fires that may occur some time after a severe crash,” LaHood said. “Chevy Volt owners can be confident that their cars are safe to drive.”

Meanwhile, the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) filed a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for any and all communications with General Motors (GM).

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“Chevy Volt owners can be confident that their cars are safe to drive.”
“Porcine species can be confident that flight is possible despite design shortcomings”

Gras Albert

The 40 mile range 16kWh lithium-ion battery pack in the Volt weighs around 400 pounds (181kg), one wonders how spectacular the sudden discharge of the 300 mile range 85 kWh 1050 pound (500kg) pack proposed for the Tesla Sedan might be?
I’m also impressed with advising the average consumer to discharge a battery pack following an accident!, consumer lawyers must be rubbing their hands in anticipation

Leon Brozyna

Reminds me of the story of the man’s house burning down from his Volt catching fire while plugged into the charger, or the story of an air freight shipment of batteries (FedEx or UPS) catching fire and bringing down the plane. The batteries are safe, except when they’re not.

Meanwhile, GM-H (Australian subsidiary) has announced the Holden Volt and is bombarding the local media with press releases and video footage.

DJ

An upcoming paper will address increased susceptibility of Chevy Volts to fires with increased temperatures due to global warming.
(…due to increased accidents resulting from global warming)

Al Gored

The beautiful new Chevy Solyndra! Drive one for Obama.

Frosty

Wasn’t there a film made about a Auto firms legal case in the US (70’s?), where there was known danger of fuel tank fires in the event of a rear end accident, if they were signalling to turn at the time of the impact? Wasn’t there a record payout in compensation because of the cover-up?
La Hood? sounds like a second hand car dealer from Sherwood Forest, cept this one is obviously not in it for the poor!

markus

I’m a Aussie, bugger if we’ll cop this. I’m going to tell me mate, Andrew Bolt. Its just not right that Dan Akerson can offer to buy back the ones that might catch on fire. The point is **They might catch on FIRE**. They are trying to get rid of them Downunder because you guys have caught onto it already and aren’t buying them. Wouldn’t hold stocks in GM right now, with all the tooling write-offs on this one.
And besides, it gets recharged from its Fossil Fuel back up engine, costs a lot of coffees to recharge, gets used up in a traffic jam, probably caused by a broken down Volt up front, uncool car for the masses, problematic disposal when redundant, short durable life, ungracious, performance of a golf cart, a total loss really. Except if ya drive around film studios.
And to be really (sarc), could have built a micro desal unit for placement in a third world village for the difference in cost to a good old combustion engine.
http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/more-news/crash-test-jolt-for-electric-holden/story-fn7x8me2-1226212590491

It is indeed true that electric cars have the energy of their travel stored in their batteries, and would be dangerous if that energy were suddenly released.
Just as true as the consequences of a petrol tank catching on fire in a conventional car.
I had a black ice accident nearly forty years ago which burnt out a car simply by crushing its hood to its 12V battery terminals. Conventional cars have MORE danger sources than electric cars.
There appears to be failure to recognize the similarity here, or to look ahead beyond present difficulties.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)

“We have opened an investigation into battery-related fires that may occur some time after a severe crash,” LaHood said. “Chevy Volt owners can be confident that their cars are safe to drive.”
Safe to drive, maybe not safe to crash. Now they will investigate the safety, meanwhile they are safe.
I drive in the real world, where random road debris can include sharp-edged medium-large rocks as well as other things hazardous to the underside of a vehicle. Where is this battery pack on the vehicle, how protected is it, and what warning systems will warn me if it gets punctured or otherwise damaged, which would include a warning to quickly do a “battery drain down” procedure? After what sort of accident would I have to do it? If I’m involved in a “fender bender” where there’s some damage but the vehicle is still drivable, do I just go through the normal “estimates, insurance adjuster, take it in for work” cycle, or must I immediately have it towed away to an authorized hazmat-capable shop for inspection (hopefully they’re open 24/7)?
Do they mention the “drain down” procedure in the showroom? Such vital information should be shared without asking, before the potential buyer signs anything. A large window sticker is warranted, right next to the price and mileage stickers. Or would informing the consumer up-front yield addition suffering for the “fragility of Volt sales”?

The Chevy Volt looks good actually but it is quite worrying to read the article here about the safety issues. It is quite dangerous if the car’s battery catches fire. I think the Chevy car makers should solve this problem. So that the car owners will feel safe to drive. The blog was really very informative and I really have to appreciate you for posting this lovely blog.

Larry in Texas

JazzRoc, get real! This lemon the Volt has been sold to the American public as the ultimate green car. For GM and the Obama administration to be as deceptive-by-silence about its shortcomings is nothing less than ridiculous. No ordinary car currently has a problem with the petrol tank catching on fire. The car you may be thinking about is the Pinto – and that car’s dangers to its fuel tank, once exposed, were publicized immediately and ultimately ruined the Pinto’s sales. No government agency delayed publicizing its faults for six months. So the Volt should be exempt from such scrutiny?
The Volt performs like crap, because it gets only 40 miles to the charge, takes at least four hours or more to recharge, and requires premium unleaded fuel for its small auxiliary gas tank. That makes it totally useless to me (and most other reasonable human beings) given its expensive price. The fact that you can find similarities between electric cars and gasoline cars is meaningless, considering the relative usefulness and performance abilities of each vehicle.
I have a Ford Fusion hybrid, so I know about the comparative value of most cars over the Volt, trust me.

Alan the Brit

Is this not a case of old fashioned commercial awareness? Sell as many as possible depsite the know teething troubles in the hope that the manufacturing process & the boys (& girls) in the design office will solve the problem in transit! Unfortunately this seems to be a potentially fatal problem that has not yet been addressed, other than to withdraw the model! Now my suggestion is this, I’ve heard about some stuff that comes out of the ground, all black & guey, but it can be refined to produced an inflamable liquid! Now, if somebody could design some kind mechanical device, a machine that could burn this flamable liquid, it could produce power, well don’t you people see? If we could just find some way of harnessing that power to a drive train of some kind, attached to a set of wheels, it would mean independent movement, free of restrictions, the end of horse drawn transport! It would be a kind of, “horseless carriage”!!!! Perhaps I should read less Jules Verne & H.G. Wells, & stick to engineering!

kadaka (KD Knoebel)

From JazzRoc on December 9, 2011 at 1:27 am:

It is indeed true that electric cars have the energy of their travel stored in their batteries, and would be dangerous if that energy were suddenly released.
Just as true as the consequences of a petrol tank catching on fire in a conventional car.
I had a black ice accident nearly forty years ago which burnt out a car simply by crushing its hood to its 12V battery terminals. Conventional cars have MORE danger sources than electric cars.

But the Volt runs on both gasoline and battery charge. Thus you still have the dangers of a conventional car with a gas tank, with the additional dangers of a much more powerful battery. Thus the Volt is a combination of the danger sources of a conventional car PLUS those of an electric car.
Also, after a crash where the battery does not immediately initiate a problem as with your wreck, the potential danger from a charged normal battery can be quickly dealt with by cutting a battery cable. How do you do that on a Volt, or a Prius, or any electric car?

markus

JazzRoc says:
December 9, 2011 at 1:27 am
“Conventional cars have MORE danger sources than electric cars.
There appears to be failure to recognize the similarity here, or to look ahead beyond present difficulties.”
Even if I would rather fry in a pony rather than a volt, its not electric vehicles per se that are a problem, it is that this particular electric vehicle is a dud, and not able to be properly used for which it was bought, unless it was bought to drive around movie studios.
Most applications suitable for electric vehicles don’t include transporting humans to cultural, religious, recreational, educational or scenic destinations of varying distances and scheduled time frames. Owning one of these things will lead you to become isolated in your social engagement and you wont get to visit family who live out of town.

Charles.U.Farley

Kinda reminds me of the Lithium Polymer (Li-Po) batteries my brother uses in in his model planes and helicopters.
Theyre quite susceptible to bursting into flames at the smallest impact that pierces the outer skin thereby allowing air and its oxygen content into contact with the lithium contents.
I suspect a similar thing is happening here.
Burned to death by a petrol tank going up or a Li-po fire….hard choice., still, if it “saves the planet” im all for choice number deux.

Claude Harvey

Lithium-ion batteries have always been susceptible to “internal runaway”. Remember the occasional flambo Sony laptops when the batteries first came on the scene? The problem is overcome in smaller batteries designed for electronic applications by applying very stringent manufacturing quality controls. Larger batteries require more exotic measures to solve the problem. Telsa Motors spent a fortune developing a very sophisticated ibattery control system for their lithium-ion batteries that supposedly prevents internal runaway. I suspect that whatever General Motors is using doesn’t always work as advertized after a crash. The relatively long delay between the actual crash and the flaming battery points toward that “internal runaway” for which lithium-ion batteries are prone.

Greg Holmes

Does anyone remember scandals “in the old days” in Pharmaceuticals? Pills that Kill not Cure.
Keep quiet about the risks whilst we run more trials and sort out the bugs.
There is a saying in the UK “they all pee in the same pot”, same in USA?

Robert of Ottawa

Thiis is what happens with Government businesses.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)

Sydney Morning Herald:
http://www.smh.com.au/environment/energy-smart/charge-this-car-for-price-of-a-coffee-20111209-1ommo.html

Charge this car for price of a coffee
December 9, 2011 – 12:51PM
Holden has unveiled the world’s first electric car that can travel a long distance, heralding it as a “game changer” in the automotive industry.
At an event in Sydney, the car manufacturer said the Volt could travel between 60 and 80 kilometres, depending on conditions, powered purely on electricity.
The car, which will take approximately four hours to recharge at the price of a cup of coffee, is expected to be rolled out in Australia late next year at a price of between $50,000 and $70,000.

By this currency converter that’d be US$51,345 to 71,883. Wow, they really expect you guys to bend over and take it, mate.


“The Holden Volt can be the only car you need to own,” Holden managing director Mike Devereux told reporters at the car’s unveiling in Sydney today.

He said the new technology, which sees the car powered by lithium-ion battery packs, would come with an extra cost, saying it would be a “little bit” more expensive than a normal petrol-powered car.
The Volt retails between $41,000 and $42,000 in the United States, he said.

But do the Aussies get to deduct a AU$7300 (US$7500) federal tax credit?
And for the spin:


Authorities in the US crash-tested the Volt in May and completely damaged the battery before leaving it powered for three weeks.
Mr Devereux said this caused a “thermal event”, which the industry would have to look at when dealing with lithium-ion batteries.

“Completely” damaged? Well then, when is it less-than-completely damaged and still completely safe?
And a funny bit:


United States ambassador Jeffrey Bleich said the car was “joy without sin”.
“It’s eating a chocolate sundae without getting fat,” Mr Bleich quipped.
“It’s watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians and actually getting smarter.”

It’s buying an over-priced under-performing faux-Green car and not noticing you didn’t do one dang thing to really lower personal carbon emissions or to help the environment.

Dr. John M. Ware

The Volt sounds to me like a bad risk. I have not yet seen anyone ask this question: When you “drain down” the Volt, what exactly comes out? Can you catch it to reload it into the car when the risk is over? If not, do you have to buy new batteries? At what cost? Do you have to be in a special place to unload it, such as a decontamination facility? It sounds like a big operation, with likely hazardous materials. I shall not buy a Volt.

JazzRoc
“… and would be dangerous if that energy were suddenly released.”
There’s no “energy” stored in batteries nor. Charging and discharging is a chemical reaction uptaking or releasing electrons which can’t burst out at once like with fuel. The real danger with lithium energy storage devices is the inflamability of lithium. Like potassium and sodium it will incinerate if getting in contact with water or even air. You cannot extinguish a light metal fire easily. At least, you shouldn’t use water but CO2 as an agent …
Oh no, that ugly poisonous dangerous CO2 … /sarc
Imagine an accident which brakes the battery whilst rain is coming down in torrents. That might extinguish ordinary fires but inevitably inflame or even cause a lithium fire.
The good news is, you have lithium handy to treat your depression while looking at your burning car. /sarc
I’d never by me a car which carries so much highly inflamable light metal in an easily to break box.

DEEBEE

What else would one expect from a Govt. owned car company — effectively collusion. Imagine if GM had been a really private company (or if the Govt. had not stepped a subsidiary of some other private car company). Need a separation of business and state clause.

Geoff Alder

So, the risk with a 31 mph side crash test was a couple of broken ribs? To me, it looked like a broken neck for the dummy could have trumped that.
Geoff Alder

JimBob

The Volt is the first hybrid-type car I’ve ever considered buying, specifically because of the gasoline engine. I drive around 30 miles round-trip for work per day but make regular road trips of hundreds of miles. The Volt would get me to work and back without using gas during the week but wouldn’t limit me from taking off on a longer trip whenever I needed to. I won’t buy a regular hybrid because the gas savings isn’t big enough to justify the cost. This is still true for the Volt, for now, but it is much closer than a Prius or other hybrid. Most of my driving is rural highway so the urban advantages of a normal hybrid don’t help me much.
The issue with the Volt is the Lithium-Ion batteries. It’s a good bet that GM and the battery manufacturer will make improvements to the batteries that make them more shock resistant, but as mentioned above, you have a lot of energy in a small package and back things will happen when it is suddenly liberated. This is no different than the fuel tank on a normal car. The big difference is that the car makers have had over a hundred years to refine their designs to protect the fuel tank. All-electric vehicles using Li-Ion batteries are still fairly new and it will take some time to work out all the kinks. All technologies have some growing pains early on.
The real issue here is if GM and the NHTSA passed over known safety issues with the batteries in order to meet a schedule. If they passed all the required testing, then maybe the DOT needs additional requirements for electric vehicles.
I’m about as anti-Green as you can get, but as an engineer, I think the concept used for the Volt is more practical than anything else out there. In the end, the market should get to decide how successful it is. I have a problem with the gubment paying people to buy them, but I also think some of the criticism is unwarranted. Time will tell.

Steven Rosenberg

PONTIAC IS GONE, BUT THE FIREBIRD LIVES ON!

A friend was once involved in a side-impact crash. Restrained by the lap belt, her major injury was a crushed pelvis as the belt held her against thin incoming bumber of the impacting vehicle.
The dummy here would have sustained the same injury – an injury that can cripple for life.

Frumious Bandersnatch

So… do you think that this might be a good time to pick up a Volt on a fire sale?

Charles.U.Farley

United States ambassador Jeffrey Bleich said
“It’s watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians and actually getting smarter.”
No science needed to take on the accuracy of that claim then……

If the range is 40 miles for the Volt, what is its’ WINTER mileage between charges,at say -30 F Maybe 8-9 miles?

Robert A

I always knew there must have been a reason we kept practicing Chinese fire drills lo these many years.

Sal Minella

The Volt gets around 37 mi/charge at STP. Any deviation from STP causes the range to decrease and there is plenty of deviation from STP in the US. San Diego, within ten miles of the beach, would be just about the only place that you could consistently get the max range.
It takes about 22KWH and eight hours to charge the battery in order to get that 37 mi round trip. At $.20/KWH, the cost to charge up is $4.44 or the equivalent of about 1.25 gallons of gas giving a fuel efficiency of about 30 mi/gal.
Anyone not willing to give up $45,000 for a car that goes 37 miles and gets 30 mi/gal in the past will certainly do so now that it can turn your home into a barbecue for no additional cost.

Sal Minella

Battery pack replacement costs $10K – 12K. Adds a little cost to your fender bender.

Justa Joe

JazzRoc says:
December 9, 2011 at 1:27 am
Conventional cars have MORE danger sources than electric cars.
There appears to be failure to recognize the similarity here, or to look ahead beyond present difficulties.
——————————–
Jazzy, I think you’re not being entirely accurate with this statement. A car like the volt has the gasoline hazard and also has a massively more powerful battery that uses a more hazardous chemistry (li-Ion). There is also the matter that a conventional car doesn’t have high current conductors running all over.If we’re going to be EV fanboys we still need to be honest about the additional potential hazards of these vehicles.
The main problem with this story is that the Administration and its Government Motors has decided that a small percentage of the public’s lives are expendable along the way in their pursuit of a Green Utopia, and, of course, not making the Administration look bad. Woe be unto anybody else that tried to pull this stunt that’s not hooked into the govt’s green machine.

If you think about it, any damaged electrical product has a risk of electrical faults that may cause heat, and thus fire. Drop-kick a radio or a toaster across the room and then plug it back in. Bad things may occur — or not. Depends exactly what damage you cause.
So it stands to reason that banging your Volt into a tree or a pedestrian might bend come component or shake something loose. If you are unlucky that bent or loose bit might get hot and you can guess the rest.
Perhaps the main question is: why is anybody surprised about this?
In fairness, maltreating a gas-driven auto could still damage its electrics with similar results, but the Volt has (I presume) many more electric bits so is statistically more likely to combust.

beng

Why hasn’t a scapegoat-hunting media-circus been orchestrated like for the pseudo-problems with Toyota cars? Remember that?
Answer? The Toyota factories in America aren’t controlled by the UAW union like the government protected GM Volt is.

Myron Mesecke

No real world problems have occurred. These were tests. Now let’s say you own a car, any car. You have an accident that totals the car. Do you sit in it for hours, days or weeks? Do you tow it home and put it in your garage? No. It gets towed to a body shop or salvage yard where it sits outside.
It’s not like the issue with the cruise control brake switches on Ford vehicles that always had current to them even when the key was off. Those switches were shorting and burning up vehicles, garages and houses even though they had not been involved in any sort of accident.
I’d be one of the first to say that electric and hybrids are a joke but I would have no worry driving a Volt. To me this is a non issue.

kim

I’d be curious to know how many General Motors labor union members drive Volts.
================

mkelly

If the cars are given back does GM have to then pay the $7500 back to the govenrment or does the purchaser? Someone got the money(credit/deduction).

Sal Minella

“No real world problems have occurred.”
There have been at least two house fires attributed to the Volt. With the small number sold, the record is far worse than the number of non-Volts that spontaneously combust. There are over 500 million non-Volts and only a few thousand Volts; non-volts would have to be autocombusting at 10000 per year to beat the Volt’s record.

DirkH

Charles.U.Farley says:
December 9, 2011 at 2:39 am
“Kinda reminds me of the Lithium Polymer (Li-Po) batteries my brother uses in in his model planes and helicopters.
Theyre quite susceptible to bursting into flames at the smallest impact that pierces the outer skin thereby allowing air and its oxygen content into contact with the lithium contents.”
Told a friend of mine about the hazards of LiPo last week, her husband is a model plane enthusiast. She said “What? some of them are in our kitchen!” Scared her stiff. Hehe. Guess hubby has some ‘splaining to do now…

Crispin in Waterloo

@JimBob
Good observations and cogent thoughts. The offers are getting better.
Perhaps they will move to super capacitors sooner than later now that there are materials capable of storing 1.2 Farads per sq inch. I was once assisting a Pinto beside a highway when it was hit square in the back by a Volvo 122. I was sprayed (along with everything and everyone around) with gasoline from the bursting tank but it did not ignite. That is a rare danger these days. The dangers posed by a capacitor are significant and the battery people will no doubt hype that when the time comes. Hollywood will have a field day shooting scenes where a cop puts a bullet through the 100 kWh capacitor of an escaping vehicle! Technologically, it is like 1910 all over again.

DirkH

While we’re talking about green inventions with the potential to destroy lives, take care when refilling your A/C. The new refrigerant R 1234 yf (proposed as a replacement because it allegedly warms the planet less than the old ones) is flammable at high temperatures (600deg C IIRC) and explosive at low concentrations.
http://www.r744.com/articles/2010-02-15-tests-confirm-hfc-1234yf-explosive-at-low-concentration.php
Avoid when possible.

Sal Minella

OK, so there are only 100 million non-Volts and 6128 Volts in the US auto fleet. So, 100,000,000/6128 * 2 actual spontaneous Volt combustions = 32,637 non-Volt equivalent autocombustions.

Spork

The danger of electric cars as compared to conventional cars (as I understand it) is in the fire and rescue side. Yes, gasoline burns “real good”. But fires are normally put out with water. I have a couple of fire fighter friends that have been through electric/hybrid rescue training and are scared to death of them.
One added gotcha is that there is no standard “cut-off” mechanism. Each and every make/model requires a different method and a different location to disable the electrics. Even if standardized, a crushed metal frame can make all sorts of unexpected changes to the wiring harness.

I discussed this with a friend of mine who is a power systems expert in the satellite field. The large Aerospace companies have incredibly detailed specifications on how to handle these batteries, including vibration and shock specifications. If a battery gets more than an X shock in handling, it is removed from possible use on a satellite due to the number of incidents involving spontaneous combustion. The problem is almost impossible to fix due to the way that the batteries are made today.
People who know these battery technologies well, know about this problem. There is no way that the engineers at GM did not know about this from day one.

Kevin Schurig

You mean people trying to push the “green” agenda would lie about a key component of their agenda? Say it ain’t so. I mean, they all are on the up and up, clean as a whistle, as honest as Abe, etc., so they would never doctor reports, data, computer models, or repress unfavorable reports that would harm the “green” movement.

Claude Harvey

Re:mkelly says:
December 9, 2011 at 7:28 am
“If the cars are given back does GM have to then pay the $7500 back to the govenrment or does the purchaser? Someone got the money(credit/deduction).”
I’m guessing that the Volt purchase tax credit is like the “solar plant 30% investment tax credit”. The instant that plant goes into continuous operation that solar tax credit is the investor’s to keep, even if the plant subsequently collapse in ruins, forfeits on its loans or is sold to others. There is no provision in the tax code for recapture of the credit.
Even if GM deducts that $7,500 credit from the price it agrees to pay the customer to “buy back” the car (notice the term is “buy back”; not “cancel purchase”), I’m guessing the U.S. Treasury will be $7,500 poorer for each Chevy Volt originally sold because the benefit will have simply been transferred to GM.

daveburton

Sal Minella wrote, “At $.20/KWH, the cost to charge up is $4.44 or the equivalent of about 1.25 gallons of gas giving a fuel efficiency of about 30 mi/gal.”
But where I live (NC) electricity costs half that. (Unfortunately, “green” mandates from Gov. Bev “we should postpone elections for two years” Perdue and her ilk are pushing the rates higher.)
Dave