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  (Source: gawkerassets.com)
Three weeks after a side-impact crash test on May 12, the Volt caught fire while parked in the NHTSA testing center

U.S. government safety regulators are conducting an investigation into the safety of lithium batteries in plug-in electric vehicles as a result of a Chevrolet Volt fire earlier this year.

Back in May, General Motor Co.'s Chevrolet Volt underwent a series of tests at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) facility in Wisconsin. Three weeks after a side-impact crash test on May 12, the Volt caught fire while parked in the testing center.

The fire was serious enough to burn other vehicles parked nearby, according to sources close to the talks who have requested to stay anonymous because the investigation is not yet public.

The fire has prompted an investigation of the safety of lithium batteries used in plug-in electric vehicles such as the Volt and Nissan's Leaf. Lithium batteries can catch fire if the internal cells or the battery case are pierced by steel or another ferrous metal, making the batteries a potential problem in car crashes. However, the batteries are usually heavily protected to prevent this from occurring.

Nevertheless, the NHTSA is looking into the safety because U.S. President Barack Obama is looking to put 1 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2015, and if there are any issues with these batteries, it wants to find it sooner rather than later.

Regulators have requested information about lithium batteries used from GM, Nissan, and Ford, and others who currently sell or plan to sell electric vehicles in the future.

GM defended the Volt after the fire, saying that the EV's battery, which is supplied by LG Chem Ltd., pose no greater threat than conventional cars. It added that GM has certain safety procedures for the Volt and the handling of its battery after an accident, and if these procedures would have been followed, the fire wouldn't have occurred.

"There are safety procedures for conventional cars," said Greg Martin, GM spokesman. "As we develop new technology, we need to ensure that safety protocols match the technology."

Even though the fire occurred three weeks after the side-impact crash, Munro said a small piercing of the battery can lead to a reaction days or weeks later.

The Wisconsin fire, however, is not the only EV fire that has occurred recently. NHTSA also sent investigators to Mooresville, North Carolina after a residential garage, which contained a charging Volt, caught fire. The investigation is ongoing.

"As manufacturers continue to develop vehicles of any kind -- electric, gasoline or diesel -- it is critical that they take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of drivers and first responders both during and after a crash," said NHTSA in an email statement on Friday. "Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, all vehicles -- both electric and gasoline-powered -- have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash."

Katherine Zachary, spokeswoman for Nissan's U.S. unit, added that the Nissan Leaf hasn't had any reports of a fire. Over 8,000 Leafs are on U.S. roads today.

"The Nissan Leaf battery pack has been designed with multiple safety systems in place to help ensure its safety in the real world," said Zachary. "All of our systems have been thoroughly tested to ensure real-world performance."

Sources: Reuters, Bloomberg



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ironic
By lagomorpha on 11/12/2011 3:53:59 AM , Rating: 5
What is particularly ironic is that in the early days of automobiles, electric car companies believed that gasoline wouldn't catch on because no one would willingly drive a car that relied on explosions and flammible liquid.




RE: ironic
By JonnyDough on 11/12/2011 4:21:13 AM , Rating: 3
Exactly what I was thinking. Aren't a hot engine, lead-acid batteries and gasoline also a dangerous mix? You can't take a single instance and open up an investigation. We would never be able to use technology. Flight is dangerous, there have been numerous massive plane wrecks - yet its still the safest form of transportation. What we should be doing is following China's lead with the monorail idea I've been pushing on this site (and others like Anandtech) for years. The highway transportation system is dated, expensive, and not as safe as a modern train.


RE: ironic
By NicodemusMM on 11/12/2011 7:14:07 AM , Rating: 3
"Aren't a hot engine, lead-acid batteries and gasoline also a dangerous mix?"

They probably were at some point, but investigations into such problems help resolve safety issues. The investigation is not to shut down the EV industry. To assume that sounds alarmist at best and tin-foil hat-ish at worst. The purpose if the investigation is to determine the cause and ensure that there isn't another underlying issue. Failure to do so would be irresponsible. Ignoring a potential issue is a good way to get someone killed.

Regarding following China's lead... yeah, right. Sounds like their monorail is going very smoothly. I don't know what idea you've been pushing, and don't feel like looking it up. I assume by your criticism of the highway system you want a national monorail system. Either you're completely ignoring the almost total lack of success with other rail plans or you have no grasp on reality. And you think highways are expensive? Without government subsidies (from new taxes to pay for the rail) the ticket prices would prevent most people from making use of the system. Even with subsidies current smaller and more manageable rail systems are still not profitable. Not much use in a rail system if no one can afford to use it... or the country can't afford to build it... or the average person won't give up the freedom that automobiles provide. Personally I think the last point would be the greatest hindrance.


RE: ironic
By JonnyDough on 11/12/2011 1:46:27 PM , Rating: 1
That was point, it sounds awfully alarmist. I am sure that this "investigation" will lead to some sort of change in how things are done and we'll all get to driving our new electric cars which we won't support with new energy because we are afraid of nuclear power and have no real viable alternatives (except for wind) yet.


RE: ironic
By lagomorpha on 11/12/2011 3:31:41 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Not much use in a rail system if no one can afford to use it... or the country can't afford to build it... or the average person won't give up the freedom that automobiles provide. Personally I think the last point would be the greatest hindrance.


The last point is less significant in places where the traffic is so terrible that automobiles don't provide their full amount of freedom. Unfortunately in Chicago the trains don't go through the night so they're useless if you want to go into the city for some fun and are stuck in 2 hours of traffic to go 15 miles. And this is a system that's already built and that is cheaper to use than the gas you'd spend if you drove a Honda Fit instead.

Rail systems shouldn't replace cars, they should augment them so that a significant portion of the traffic is diverted in dense population areas. All that needs to be done is to make them less inconvenient than driving a significant portion of the time.


RE: ironic
By seamonkey79 on 11/12/2011 4:39:54 PM , Rating: 2
Even with over crowded trains and not running over night, the CTA is incapable of making ends meet... even after the state hands over another pile of cash.


RE: ironic
By MrPickins on 11/13/2011 12:39:40 PM , Rating: 2
RE: ironic
By TSS on 11/12/2011 10:50:25 PM , Rating: 1
It'll be even more ironic when EV's fail because it'll be for the exact same reasons they lost out to petrol in the first place.

It won't be practical enough.


But three weeks later ...
By drycrust3 on 11/12/2011 1:02:34 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Three weeks after a side-impact crash test on May 12, the Volt caught fire while parked in the testing center.

After some thought, I think the danger here isn't that the vehicle caught fire, but that it caught fire three weeks after the event. In a real world crash the car could have been repaired and be back on the road, or it could be stored waiting repair, so no one is expecting a problem to arise three weeks after the crash.
With a crashed petrol powered car, if one considers a situation where there is no obvious signs of danger when the vehicle is when removed from the crash scene (e.g. no signs the fuel tank was ruptured), then it is considered more or less safe. And if there was a small leak somewhere then one would expect there to be signs such as the smell of petrol around the vehicle, or evidence of the leak on the ground.
In addition, with an electric system, one normally expects things like fuses or circuit breakers to kick in if there is a short circuit.
With the car parked outside, it makes me wonder if water somehow got into the vehicle and created some sort of short circuit.




RE: But three weeks later ...
By mindless1 on 11/12/2011 1:16:51 PM , Rating: 1
Agreed. A fire you expect is far less dangerous than one you don't. Their idea "if you follow our procedures for the battery" FAIL. In the real world there will be plenty of accidents where people don't drop everything, put their car in a junk yard and pay someone to pull the battery right then and there and isolate it for weeks or longer in case it ends up exploding.

Where will they put these pulled batteries anyway? I suspect you wouldn't want to store them all together so if one blows up the rest cascade fail. Do we ship them hundreds if not thousands of miles to some remote desert and arrange them in a tombstone config and how would we safely transport this explosive material? I for one would like to know if I am driving behind a 18 wheeled fire bomb that could blow at any moment.


RE: But three weeks later ...
By tng on 11/13/2011 9:54:10 AM , Rating: 1
quote:
Where will they put these pulled batteries anyway? I suspect you wouldn't want to store them all together so if one blows up the rest cascade fail. Do we ship them hundreds if not thousands of miles to some remote desert and arrange them in a tombstone config and how would we safely transport this explosive material?
Exactly, yet there are people here who champion the EV/Hybrid and will condemn nuclear power, when by weight or volume, dead batteries will be a much larger problem than spent fuel rods ever were.

How are these good for the environment again?


RE: But three weeks later ...
By Visual on 11/14/2011 4:36:34 AM , Rating: 2
Eh, you are treating this as a radioactive waste or something...

No, you don't arrange them in the desert, you send them to the manufacturer for recycling. And no, they will not be at risk of randomly exploding en route, not after the correct inspection and safety procedures.
I am sure even tiny leaks can be detected on the spot with the correct tech inspection, and if found the battery can be disassembled to cells, the punctured cell emptied and your feared imaginary bomb disarmed. It is just a matter of being aware of the potential problem and looking for it.


RE: But three weeks later ...
By tng on 11/14/2011 7:11:13 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
No, you don't arrange them in the desert, you send them to the manufacturer for recycling.
Lithium batteries are very difficult to recycle, hence the reason why GM and other manufacturers are coming up with alternate ways of using them after they have reached lifetime in the cars. Those articles have been here on DT.

I think that GM wanted to use them on wind farms or something like that for electricity storage.


RE: But three weeks later ...
By mindless1 on 11/20/2011 5:01:11 PM , Rating: 2
You are idealizing about what "might" be best or "could" be done.

If this type of ideology were followed, we might never have traffic accidents or exploding batteries. We do. Ideals != reality.


A little late
By Keeir on 11/14/2011 1:50:24 PM , Rating: 2
Reading the full article or the source would be helpful to understand.

After a major accident simulation that made a Volt undrivable and caused the battery coolant to drain, a Volt was parked and left totally alone. The Volt's gas tank was drained following standard procedure for this type of situation. But no attempt was made to drain the battery. Of course, the potentially damaged lithium battery with no coolant eventually posed a safety hazard. (One that would have been evident several days before the fire most likely)

This was done in direct opposite of GM's recommendation. In major accidents, the Volt's battery should be drained.

Most batteries have a little self-discharge similiar to a pilot light. Without a means to cool this pilot light (and a potentially faster burning pilot light), the Volt eventually caught fire. Is this different than a several compromised fuel system? Not really, but the "public" doesn't have a percention on what safety measures to take. Hopefully it becomes common knowledge that if a BEV/EREV etc is in a serious accident, the battery levels should be drained to low levels as soon as possible.




There will be more
By Beenthere on 11/12/2011 1:24:20 PM , Rating: 1
GM and other EV makers have spent a lot of time and effort to try and make the batteries safe but the reality is there will be more fires and not all from collisions. These types of batteries where high current draw is encountered are prone to internal short circuiting, which leads to overheating and fires. See laptop computers over the past several years as real world examples.

In addition recycling of these batteries even undamaged ones is a headache. Now the realities of EVs and hybrids are starting to become real. In time people will discover that EVs and hybrids are not all peaches and cream as they have been misled to believe.




Where's Ralph Nader?
By StealthX32 on 11/12/11, Rating: -1
RE: Where's Ralph Nader?
By Black1969ta on 11/12/2011 2:59:38 AM , Rating: 2
I agree with you; however, EV's face the same obstacle as the computer industry. a chicken before the egg situation, if you will. OEM needed to make Multi-cores before software companies would make programing that would take advantage of multi-cores, but why make a multi-core when the they are not faster with existing single threaded software?

Unless manufacturers can see that a market exists for an EV they will not invest in refining the tech that goes into it. And, without OEM support, even government subsidies are not enough to advance battery tech any quicker than the snail's pace that has been in effect for 50+ years. These early models that only have a 100 mile range serve the same purpose as the bleeding edge hardware in the computer industry, to help to catalyze consumer interest.


RE: Where's Ralph Nader?
By invidious on 11/12/2011 3:55:05 AM , Rating: 2
Which is why the government should go back to funding research that enables technological growth instead of creating artificial demand with price breaks that only benefit a minute percentage of the population.


RE: Where's Ralph Nader?
By Chadder007 on 11/14/2011 10:19:39 AM , Rating: 2
Agreed. I'm also wondering if these tax breaks on the cars themselves are having an impact on the initial pricing on the vehicles. Instead of simply getting the car to be affordable with the tax breaks to consumers when purchasing the vehicle, the tax break is instead allowing the car companies to inflate the initial price of the vehicle for more profit. Case in point, a $40,000 electric Ford Focus???


RE: Where's Ralph Nader?
By tng on 11/12/2011 2:50:42 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
OEM needed to make Multi-cores before software companies would make programing that would take advantage of multi-cores, but why make a multi-core when the they are not faster with existing single threaded software?
I understand your point, but it is not really a good analogy for this. Multicore processors were achievable technology for some time and do you really think that Intel just came up with the idea one day? No they had it in a long term plan, knowing that there was a huge upside for all people who use computers and the bottom line. They also sell themselves to a certain extent, no government subsidies are needed to sell a Dell with a i7.

There are is no clear roadmap to battery development. Money, government and private, has been poured into this for decades and still there have only been incremental advances on stuff that was out 20/30 years ago.

You point out that the models now that are the "bleeding edge" have a 100 mile range, in 10 years they will have a 125 mile range, and all of the "new" stuff will not pan out.


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