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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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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
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.

"So, I think the same thing of the music industry. They can't say that they're losing money, you know what I'm saying. They just probably don't have the same surplus that they had." -- Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA

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