Published January 7, 2012
By Jeff Cobb
On Thursday GM announced it had engineered an expedient but effective solution to post-crash-test battery fires reported by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and will ask Chevrolet Volt drivers to return to their dealers for the one-day reinforcing procedure.
Despite ongoing distortions of facts by critics including one Fox News pundit who suggested the vehicle might “blow up,” federal authorities have repeated that the Volt is safe and GM says its voluntary measure is intended to keep showing why the Volt is rated #1 in customer satisfaction.
According to Mary Barra, GM’s senior VP of global product development, the fire's cause following a 20-mph side-impact into a pole involved rupturing the battery’s coolant lines that led to short circuiting.
“Testing and analysis revealed the fire was the result of a minor intrusion from a portion of the vehicle into a side section of the battery pack,” Barra said on Chevrolet VoltAge.com. “The intrusion resulted in a small coolant leak inside the battery, approximately 50 ml (one-quarter of a cup) of fluid.”
Igniting another Volt battery in repeated side-impact tests was not at first an easy task, and it wasn't until December that two crash tested stand-alone batteries showed how it's done. Once that was understood, GM scrambled to put out the fire of public perception as fast as it could.
And to be sure, Barra confirmed GM quickly completed development and validation of its remedial measures, “thereby eliminating the chance for a post-crash electrical fire for this test condition.”
She then described the procedure GM dealers will offer Volt owners in its “Customer Satisfaction Program” beginning in February – it's not a recall, thus not being done with federal oversight, and – the hope is – with less perceived stigma.
“First, we’re going to strengthen an existing portion of the vehicle’s safety structure that protects the battery pack in the event of a severe side collision,” Barra said. “The enhancements add to the robustness in protecting the battery and its coolant lines in the event of a severe side crash.”
Additional enhancements to the battery coolant system, include:
• Installing a sensor in the battery coolant system reservoir to monitor coolant levels.
• Adding a tamper resistant bracket to the top of the battery coolant reservoir to help prevent potential coolant overfill.
“These enhancements and modifications will address the concerns raised by the severe crash tests,” Barra said. “There are no changes to the Volt battery pack or cell chemistry as a result of these actions. We have tested the Volt’s battery system for more than 285,000 hours, or 25 years, of operation. We’re as confident as ever that the cell design is among the safest on the market.”
The company added that the Volt is a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and has earned other safety awards from key third-party organizations.
Although no fires like those created by NHTSA have been reported by Volt drivers, Barra said GM is now “choosing to go the extra mile to ensure our customers’ peace of mind.”
When the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant reopens Jan. 23, these same updates will be baked into all new Volts, GM said.
An exaggerated issue
The Volt – which actually got started as a concept during the Bush administration – has been widely believed to be perhaps the most singled-out automotive political whipping boy by opponents to the Obama administration, General Motors, electrified vehicles or all the above.
Although no electric cars have yet caught fire on the road, and last year alone over 200,000 internally combusted vehicles were involved in fires, the Volt has received outsized attention as a representative of plug-in electrified vehicles which some have noted the Obama administration has since embraced.
Actually, the Volt has broad appeal for those interested in not just the environment, but also national security, energy security, and in short, it represents a first step toward solving issues important to all political sensibilities, but perceptions at the moment are what they are.
The immediate “concerns” NHTSA raised leading to an investigation opened last month involved the threat of a battery fire starting hours or days after a Volt has already been totaled in a collision.
NHTSA has never suggested an EV battery could explode on impact, nor has it been able to get one to even easily catch fire after repeatedly crashing them.
The remedial engineering involving a few pounds of extra steel in critical places to protect the Volt's battery pack in a severe accident were done by GM not because NHTSA said it had to, but GM said it really wants to prove it is offering a viable and safe technology.
It has thus been observed GM jumped through the hoops it has in response to fears and concerns more than actual quantifiable dangers.
Just mentioning the threat of "fire" over and over again has had this effect in today’s political and social climate about a new technology many in the mainstream do not fully understand.
Last month the media focused on GM’s initial efforts to assuage people’s fears including offering a loaner car while NHTSA's investigation was carried out, and even offering to buy back Volts if asked to by worried owners.
Being under the public microscope as it is, GM has been careful how it presents itself, but it has conceded what it has done has from a defensive position, and the biased and polemical sociopolitical environment it is striving against is becoming apparent.
Even normally conservative automotive publications have observed the complications that plug-in cars have had to contend with.
For example, WardsAuto has commented on the politicized nature of things. And worse than an attack on a car, company or administration, it sees the Volt’s batterygate issue as part of a broader cultural problem adversely affecting American competitiveness.
In short, Wards contends U.S. innovation is being killed off by factional and divisive interests who brand a certain creation as belonging to their opponents, as an excerpt following shows:
Actually, dying is too kind a word. Innovation is being murdered in America. … Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the Chevy Volt. It is the most innovative vehicle to come out of Detroit in a generation, yet Republicans are trying to kill it and Democrats and environmentalists are not digging into their own pockets to show it the support they say it deserves”.
At this point perceptions are believed to be more an outcome of either deliberate or inadvertent fear mongering.
Speaking of which, some have also alleged GM's offer of loaners, buybacks and now this fix have been made because secretly it knew there were bigger technical issues to cover itself against, but GM Spokesman Rob Peterson said this is not the case.
The big-enough issue is the same as it ever was – redeeming the post-bankruptcy GM’s name from the bad rap it got in some quarters over the years, and proving the Volt is viable.
“People's impressions of General Motors go back years and it will take time and it will take deeds – not necessarily words – to prove that having satisfied customers is what we’re out to achieve,” Peterson said.
He noted that the latest Consumer Reports' 93-percent rating for the Volt makes it number one in owner satisfaction and exceeds even a runner up from Porsche costing twice as much.
The Volt has also accrued a sizable list of awards, but did miss a goal of 10,000 U.S. sales this year in part because of repeated attempts to bring it down.
Throughout its inaugural year critics threw what they could on the Volt, the media responded to the story du jour/em> in predictable fashion, but one by one perceived issues were shown to be exaggerated and their "news cycle" died a natural death.
As for this latest issue, observers note that GM needs to put it behind it, restore any lost confidence in its halo car and nascent market, and prepare to sell as many as 60,000 more Volts worldwide this year.
Now that the Volt is available in all 50 states, and being exported to Canada and to Europe as the Volt and Opel/Vauxhall Ampera sister vehicle, this year will be more telling how “ready for prime time” the Volt actually is.