Retrofitted Toyota Prius sets itself on fire

Hybrids seem to be all the rage these days from auto manufacturers. With gas prices passing the $4.00 a gallon mark, domestic and foreign manufacturers are looking for ways to bring more fuel-efficient vehicles to the consumer market.

One promising technology that is soon to hit production will come in the form of plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEVs). New production vehicles from General Motors and Toyota will feature onboard battery packs which can be recharged via a standard household outlet. In the case of the Chevrolet Volt, the vehicle can travel 40 miles with a fully charged battery.

Although production models are still a few years away, that hasn’t stopped third-party manufacturers from retrofitting existing hybrid vehicles to accommodate plug-in hardware. DailyTech previously reported that Lithium Technology Corporation (LTC) retrofitted a Toyota Prius to incorporate both lithium-ion batteries and plug-in technology. Likewise, UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies' Plug-In Hybrid Center sponsored a program last year to equip 100 Northern California households with plug-in Priuses.

Testing of the various Priuses retrofitted to accept plug-in modules have gone relatively smoothly -- until now. The Cooperative Research Network (CRN) reports that a Toyota Prius PHEV owned by Central Electric Power Cooperative (CEPC) and retrofitted with a Hybrids-Plus PHEV15 conversion kit exploded on June 7.

The Prius in question had previously been experiencing charger-related malfunctions, but was still allowed to operate in the test fleet. On its final voyage, the driver noticed that the back seat caught on fire -- the driver then quickly pulled over to the side of the road and was able to exit the vehicle. Shortly after the driver fled the vehicle, "there was a subsequent explosion" according to CRN.

There was little damage to the A123-manufactured lithium-ion battery pack which suggests that some other hybrid component could have been the cause of the fire and subsequent explosion -- this could be somewhat of a relief to many who still express reservations with regards to installing numerous lithium-ion cells in passenger vehicles.

Unfortunately, there was no data logger present on the Prius so it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the fire. Hopefully, the data gathered as the investigation goes forward will allow future PHEV auto manufacturers to provide us all with safe, reliable vehicles.

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