2011
11.29

We have all been talking about electric vehicles and their promise of making a greener future. And I was going to stay out of all the scuttlebutt surrounding the public relations nightmare facing the Chevrolet Volt, following an investigation opened by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.), into the risk of fires caused by damage to the vehicle’s lithium ion batteries. However, no industry, or even technology for that matter, can withstand the public relations scrutiny that is just beginning to impact the EV industry. Not even after we have seen hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on the development and marketing convincing all of us about the importance of a greener footprint.

However, at the first sign of a problem it seems executives are panicking and this is giving the EV industry somewhat a black eye even before it gets off the ground. Okay, there appears to be a problem with the battery packs posing a safety risk in the event of an accident. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we shouldn’t be investigating the problems. But I have to wonder if we are not reacting a little too quickly before we understand the whole problem.

According to the information I received, we are just talking about a crash test here. Personally, I am thrilled that the NHTSA is doing its job and making General Motors really do its proper due diligence on the Chevrolet Volt batteries, but some of the media publicity surrounding this news makes it sound like the entire EV market is ultimately doomed.

So first, let’s start here by setting some of the record straight from the NHTSA. In May, the NHTSA crashed a Chevrolet Volt in an NCAP (New Car Assessment Program) test designed to measure the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. During that test, the vehicle’s battery was damaged and the coolant line was ruptured.

When a fire occurred more than three weeks after it was crashed, the NHTSA concluded that the damage to the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery during the crash test led to the fire.

Now NHTSA is looking into GM’s plug-in hybrid vehicle after subsequent crash tests in two out of three Volts and their batteries resulted in fires. According to the NHTSA, in an effort to recreate the May mishaps, it has conducted three tests a little more than a week ago on the Volt’s lithium-ion battery packs that intentionally damaged the battery compartment and ruptured the vehicle’s coolant line. So what does this all mean for EVs?

Well, No. 1, the NHTSA is just opening up an investigation in two crash tests that caused the battery to spark or catch fire. These tests stem from an earlier incident in which the Volt battery caused a fire in the NHTSA facility.

No. 2, all of these reports are sure to trigger fears in Chevy Volt owners. However, according to executives, these fires occurred days after a crash and not on impact. They also indicated that gas-powered cars do not appear to be at risk of catching fire.

No. 3, NHTSA is not raising concerns about electric vehicles in general and Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern.

No. 4, it appears most of the questions seem to revolve around the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars like the Volt. Vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric, among others, also use the same battery. No reports so far of problems with any of the other batteries to date.

It’s a pretty common fact that gasoline-powered automobiles have caught on fire thousands of times each year and we as motorists continue to drive these vehicles.

One point to keep in mind is that despite all the negative publicity this investigation might bring about for EVs, let’s not let it drown out all the positive facts about these vehicles. First and foremost is the fact EVs provide that greener footprint and could ultimately reduce our nation’s dependency on foreign oil—not to mention the great connected options that go hand-in-hand with these vehicles.

So as the investigation continues to improve the safety of EVs, so too should the excitement about the future of EVs.

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