Print 31 comment(s) - last by Adam M.. on Dec 4 at 7:39 PM

NHTSA says it is too soon to recall vehicles or parts

As promised, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) looked into the safety of lithium batteries after a Chevrolet Volt caught fire back in May. After conducting three different tests two weeks ago, the NHTSA found that the Volt's battery either caught fire or began to smoke in two out of the three.

General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Volt underwent several tests in a NHTSA Wisconsin facility earlier this year. On May 12, 2011, it experienced the side-impact crash test. Three weeks later, the plug-in electric vehicle (EV) caught fire while parked in the NHTSA testing center.

The fire, which was fierce enough to burn other vehicles parked nearby, prompted an investigation of the Chevrolet Volt and the safety of lithium batteries.

The NHTSA conducted side-impact crash tests for the Chevrolet Volt on November 16, 17 and 18. After each test, the batteries of the three separate Volts were then rotated 180 degrees. Out of the three tests, two resulted in fire, smoke or sparks while one remained normal.

The November 16 test had normal results, while the November 17 test led to a battery fire one week later and the November 18 test caused the battery to smoke and emit sparks. The battery packs of the three Volts were not drained after any of the crashes.

The results have led to a formal investigation of the safety of the Chevrolet Volt and its lithium battery.

"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," said NHTSA.

GM has said that it launched a system where first responders immediately depower the battery of a Chevrolet Volt after a severe crash. This is safety protocol because lithium batteries can catch fire if the internal cells or the battery case are pierced by steel or another ferrous metal. Even the slightest piercing of the battery can lead to a reaction days or weeks later.

"The Volt is safe and does not present undue risk as part of normal operation or immediately after a severe crash," said GM after the NHTSA's tests this month. "GM and the agency's focus and research continue to be on battery performance, handling, storage and disposal after a crash or other significant event, like a fire, to better serve first- and secondary-responders."

NHTSA and GM have both said that they are unaware of any battery-related fires caused by roadway crashes involving customers. However, NHTSA advised EV owners to remain cautious in the event of a crash as they would in a gasoline or diesel-fueled vehicle. The NHTSA's advice includes stepping out of the car and moving away from it while contacting authorities. When responders arrive, they are to check for markings that it is an EV and use large amounts of water on the vehicle if there are any signs of a fire. They are to then contact experts at the vehicle's manufacturer on how to discharge a propulsion battery.

There are currently 6,000 Volt owners on the roads, but the number of EVs cruising around in the U.S. is expected to increase because U.S. President Barack Obama is looking to put 1 million EVs on the roads by 2015.

Sources: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, General Motors

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By Stuka on 11/28/2011 10:07:55 AM , Rating: 2
Sounds like the car is fine, but they need to mandate different handling of electric cars. Any electric vehicle in a collision which results in airbag deployment, should be immediately towed to a processing center (junk yard?) and the battery pack removed, IDed to the vehicle it came from, and stored separately to be dealt with later. All of this billable to the at-fault insurance, of course. Are normal cars stored with full gas tanks after these tests??

RE: Der
By SandmanWN on 11/28/2011 10:20:40 AM , Rating: 4
That is a key difference in testing. You have an active energy source with electric cars. When testing gasoline based cars the tanks are empty and they use a cabling system to simulate speed. Pretty sure there would be a great deal more fires if they left gasoline in the test cars and just parked them out back when done testing.

Unless this test shows an immediate concern during an accident... Otherwise it only points out that there are some additional steps to be taken when dealing with an accident involving electric vehicles.

RE: Der
By ender707 on 11/28/2011 1:17:50 PM , Rating: 2
I think that anyone who works with these types of batteries is more than aware of the issue of damaged packs catching fire. And while it may not exactly be "common", I have seen a quite a few ICE vehicles on fire on the side of the road without there having been an accident.

I use lithium polymer batteries in my RC vehicles, and it is recommended that the packs be stored in an ammo can or other fireproof container whether they are damaged or not.

RE: Der
By FITCamaro on 11/28/2011 2:19:45 PM , Rating: 3
Leaking gas doesn't catch fire. Leaking gas on a hot exhaust or engine catches fire. So they'd have to crash running vehicles.

RE: Der
By Samus on 11/28/2011 2:36:17 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, but this problem didn't occur during or after the crash. It caught fire after sitting in a warehouse 2-weeks post crash. The battery pack should have been disconnected and removed by then, which has been common practice on vehicles involved in serious accidents for decades.

Most vehicles, including the Volt, have an innertia switch for the fuel that removed fuel pressure and disabled the fuel pump post-crash, requiring a manual reset.

Perhaps the same technology is neccessary for the battery pack, including onboard diagnostics of Li-Ion/Li-Po cells. In R/C cars we have Li-Po balancers and chargers that can balanced, diagnose and disabled individual cells in a battery. Why doesn't a $40,000 car have the same technology as my $500 R/C car?

RE: Der
By djc208 on 11/28/2011 3:34:20 PM , Rating: 2
In R/C cars we have Li-Po balancers and chargers that can balanced, diagnose and disabled individual cells in a battery. Why doesn't a $40,000 car have the same technology as my $500 R/C car?

It does, however the issue here isn't about control of the battery pack, it's about damage. If the cell is physically damaged and comes into contact with ferous metals it can start a chemical reaction resulting in fire according to the article.

Plus at it's most basic it's still just a battery. The electronics and chargers may be able to control that battery but if something shorts across the terminals, or they are put into a state outside of their normal operating condiditon, an individual cell may fail which could cause a cascade given time.

RE: Der
By MrTeal on 11/28/2011 10:20:59 AM , Rating: 2
I think the biggest problem is that these fires and issues happen some time after the accident, with no apparent immediate reaction. With a gas vehicle, either the tank is breached or it isn't, and a problem is pretty obvious.

While there probably could be increased monitoring of the pack to help determine if there is an issue, this is a procedural problem. If you get into an accident in an electric car, the battery needs to be inspected, simple as that. Just because a gas powered car can be considered okay if there's not an immediate fire doesn't mean that's true of all vehicles.

RE: Der
By Natch on 11/29/2011 8:56:54 AM , Rating: 2
Except, in the US, they usually first go to a repair shop, to determine whether the insurance company wants to repair the vehicle, or call it totalled, at which time it would go to the scrap yard. Same thing they currently do with gasoline powered vehicles. Unless the fuel tank is noticed to be ruptured or leaking, they don't bother draining it.

And believe me when I say that the insurance companies are not going to want to pay to remove battery packs from a vehicle that can be repaired, since then they'd have to pay to have them put back in.

I do agree, however, that if a vehicle is going to be scrapped, the battery pack should be removed, inspected for damage, and either sent for recycling, or stored separately for resale. Definitely not what I would consider to be a "pick and pull" part!

By dew111 on 11/28/2011 5:25:48 PM , Rating: 4
"When responders arrive, they are to check for markings that it is an EV and use large amounts of water on the vehicle if there are any signs of a fire."


That is all.

RE: Uhhhh...NO!
By FirNaTine on 11/29/2011 12:55:48 AM , Rating: 3
Realize there is a tipping point where sufficient water will provide cooling that exceeds heat released from the reaction.

Telling a firefighter to apply copious amounts of water (from the actual bulletin) is a reflection of this, and would be in the thousand to several thousand liter per minute application rate range.

RE: Uhhhh...NO!
By relztes on 11/29/2011 12:38:49 PM , Rating: 2
The main fire risk in a lithium battery is actually the organic electrolyte, which is flammable. Electrochemical reactions may initiate the fire, but once it gets going, it's mostly the electrolyte that burns. Since the electrolyte is miscible with water, this should work. The combustion energy of the electrolyte is much greater than the energy stored in the battery. This is actually why lithium ion batteries have a greater fire risk than other battery chemistries, which use water based electrolytes.

RE: Uhhhh...NO!
By EddyKilowatt on 11/29/2011 8:11:09 PM , Rating: 2
There's no lithium metal in a lithium-ion battery. Just lithium compounds, that don't act so much like alkalai metals.

As already noted, what burns is the organic solvent electrolyte, followed by the anode and cathode materials.

The number one thing in fighting a fire in a large lithium-ion pack is to keep the fire from propagating from one or a few cells, to a few hundred or few thousand cells. The way you do that is exactly what the article said... lots of water. Not to put out the fire per se, but to cool things off and keep adjacent cells from getting hot enough to 'cook off'.

There are some FAA training videos out on the web somewhere about dealing with laptop battery fires, that say basically the same thing. Water, lots of it, try to get things cooled off.

There will always be something.
By Adam M on 11/28/2011 8:02:59 PM , Rating: 2
I wonder how much of an issue this really is. With any new or emerging technology there is bound to be stumbling blocks. It seems that first response personal have had training and have tools to discharge the batteries safely. Any storage lot that may house those vehicles should also have discharge and removal procedures in place. As long as a proper course is followed, these fires should be few and far between. I would hate to see some alarmist reaction slow any progress we make toward breaking free from fossil fuels.

RE: There will always be something.
By kraeper on 11/29/2011 3:02:25 PM , Rating: 3
67% of test results ending in fire? Meh, you're probably right. Not that big of a deal, and it seems statistically insignificant anyway.

By Adam M on 12/4/2011 7:39:08 PM , Rating: 2
I would consider the actual number of Volts on the road, versus how many suffer impact. Also taking into consideration that those impacted would have the batteries properly discharged and/or removed. Yes, insignificant. These are not pintos that explode on impact. These are fires that may occur days or weeks after impact when not properly discharged. Significant only for the tow lot that failed to contain a potential issue.

No surprises here
By Beenthere on 11/28/2011 10:28:15 AM , Rating: 3
The risks of these batteries has been known for years in laptop PC fires. Now maybe they'll take this safety issue seriously before injuries result?

By Dr of crap on 11/28/2011 12:24:01 PM , Rating: 3
"There are currently 6,000 Volt owners on the roads, but the number of EVs cruising around in the U.S. is expected to increase because U.S. President Barack Obama is looking to put 1 million EVs on the roads by 2015."

And will he buy these cars and give them away?
Because I don't see them selling in hugh numbers and this will only make for less sales.

It's not too late...
By phantom505 on 11/28/2011 1:08:59 PM , Rating: 3
to offer Ford a small sum of money for the Pinto moniker.

Are we still subsidizing these?
By superstition on 11/28/2011 7:57:12 PM , Rating: 3
Are we still paying wealthy people thousands per vehicle so they can have the luxury of feeling green?

How green is that coal power?

Ouch! (no pun intended)
By CrazyBernie on 11/28/2011 10:04:15 AM , Rating: 2
That can't be good.

By Performance Fanboi on 11/28/2011 11:54:20 PM , Rating: 2
It's starting to like like any moderate to severe crash will write off the ~$10,000 battery pack. Can't wait to see how much this will effect insurance rates.

Chevy Volt = Ford's Pinto
By ChipDude on 11/30/2011 2:01:21 PM , Rating: 2
I will never forget that movie where a big german army truck screachs to a stop, gently bumps a Pinto and it explodes.. too funny.

American engineering and design at its best...

Good job Chevy!

WHAT? Water + Lithium = Fire
By toyotabedzrock on 12/3/2011 3:18:35 PM , Rating: 2
Why would they tell people to use water?

Lithium burns or explodes when exposed to water!

What a surprise!
By euler007 on 11/28/2011 12:17:30 PM , Rating: 1
"NHTSA says it is too soon to recall vehicles or parts"

Don't mess with Government Motors...

Would have assumed ...
By Soapy Johnson on 11/28/2011 7:37:43 PM , Rating: 1
Would have assumed they'd learned this after February's "Chevrolet Volt 400" race ...

RE: I know how this is going to be spun by the media...
By tng on 11/28/2011 1:12:41 PM , Rating: 2
...its irresponsible for the NHTSA to release information like this, without knowing what the full story is, and without knowing if there's really a defect with the Volt, or if just different safety protocol...
Nonsense, they have a duty to report these things.

As for them not knowing what the "defect" is, there is no defect, this is just how the batteries are, and yes, there needs to be some protocol for EVs.

As far as the headline "Volt BURSTS INTO FLAMES", how many stories have you seen about Prius batteries up in flames? Certainly there are many more out there than this and they have been involved in accidents. Don't know if all Priuses have Lithium batteries or not, but it seems that this is more of a issue with GM engineering. Typical GM stuff...

By Gurthang on 11/28/2011 2:39:13 PM , Rating: 2
The stabdard hybrid battery on a Prius is a 200v NiMH battery pack. There are some third-parties who will convert a Prius into a Plug-in Hybrid using lithium batteries but those are few and far between. Toyota has made the 2010+ models able to be plug-ins from the factory but I have yet to hear of any being availible in the states.

That said the amount of energy stored in the prius battery is far lower and because of the how the hybrid drive works in the Prius the battery is rarely in a state of "full charge". That said shorting any good sized charged battery can lead to fires in the right circumstances. It is just that some lithium cell types can do it all on their own if they are not handled or maintained correctly.

IMHO the real answer if we are serious about moving to electric vehicles is to move to "magnetic resonance" style charging/power in the toll roads to start and move it out from there. That would leave the battery to deal with acceleration, regenerative breaking, and "off grid" or "down" roads. Heck I suspect you could sneak some data over that power link, thus allowing cars and the road itself to comunicate to reroute around trouble or automate driving.

By shin0bi272 on 11/28/2011 1:58:25 PM , Rating: 2
so if your car was prone to catching fire and did poorly in a government crash test you wouldnt wanna know? yeah blame conservatives for a car company's failures... that'll fix it.

By Masospaghetti on 11/29/2011 4:02:35 PM , Rating: 2
Did catching fire 1 or 3 weeks later, left unattended with a fully charged 16 kilowatt hour battery?

The NHTSA did not follow safety protocols. News like this should not be reported until its clear that proper procedures were followed.

By JediJeb on 11/29/2011 6:17:34 PM , Rating: 2
Problem is there are tens of thousands of small wrecker services across the country that could end up towing one of these after a crash, I doubt that every one of them is going to know the procedure for handling the batteries. Is it GM's responsibility to get the word out, the government's responsibility, the car owner's? Most would tow the car to a holding lot until the insurance adjuster can come and look it over which can take days or longer. Suppose there is a puncture in that battery and it rains while it is sitting there, could that spark a fire with the Lithium/Water reaction? It will be a while before these types of things are common knowledge, and there are going to be a few incidents along the way that happen for sure.

"Spreading the rumors, it's very easy because the people who write about Apple want that story, and you can claim its credible because you spoke to someone at Apple." -- Investment guru Jim Cramer

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