GM Reinforces Volt Battery as Customer Service Gesture

On Thursday GM announced it had engineered an expedient but effective solution to post-crash-test battery fires reported by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and will ask Chevrolet Volt drivers to return to their dealers for the one-day reinforcing procedure.

Despite ongoing distortions of facts by critics including one Fox News pundit who suggested the vehicle might “blow up,” federal authorities have repeated that the Volt is safe and GM says its voluntary measure is intended to keep showing why the Volt is rated #1 in customer satisfaction.

According to Mary Barra, GM’s senior VP of global product development, the fire’s cause following a 20-mph side-impact into a pole involved rupturing the battery’s coolant lines that led to short circuiting.

“Testing and analysis revealed the fire was the result of a minor intrusion from a portion of the vehicle into a side section of the battery pack,” Barra said on Chevrolet VoltAge.com. “The intrusion resulted in a small coolant leak inside the battery, approximately 50 ml (one-quarter of a cup) of fluid.”

Igniting another Volt battery in repeated side-impact tests was not at first an easy task, and it wasn’t until December that two crash tested stand-alone batteries showed how it’s done. Once that was understood, GM scrambled to put out the fire of public perception as fast as it could.

And to be sure, Barra confirmed GM quickly completed development and validation of its remedial measures, “thereby eliminating the chance for a post-crash electrical fire for this test condition.”

She then described the procedure GM dealers will offer Volt owners in its “Customer Satisfaction Program” beginning in February – it’s not a recall, thus not being done with federal oversight, and – the hope is – with less perceived stigma.

“First, we’re going to strengthen an existing portion of the vehicle’s safety structure that protects the battery pack in the event of a severe side collision,” Barra said. “The enhancements add to the robustness in protecting the battery and its coolant lines in the event of a severe side crash.”

Additional enhancements to the battery coolant system, include:

• Installing a sensor in the battery coolant system reservoir to monitor coolant levels.

• Adding a tamper resistant bracket to the top of the battery coolant reservoir to help prevent potential coolant overfill.

“These enhancements and modifications will address the concerns raised by the severe crash tests,” Barra said. “There are no changes to the Volt battery pack or cell chemistry as a result of these actions. We have tested the Volt’s battery system for more than 285,000 hours, or 25 years, of operation. We’re as confident as ever that the cell design is among the safest on the market.”

ChevroletVoltPartsInstallation

The company added that the Volt is a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and has earned other safety awards from key third-party organizations.

Although no fires like those created by NHTSA have been reported by Volt drivers, Barra said GM is now “choosing to go the extra mile to ensure our customers’ peace of mind.”

When the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant reopens Jan. 23, these same updates will be baked into all new Volts, GM said.

An exaggerated issue

The Volt – which actually got started as a concept during the Bush administration – has been widely believed to be perhaps the most singled-out automotive political whipping boy by opponents to the Obama administration, General Motors, electrified vehicles or all the above.

Although no electric cars have yet caught fire on the road, and last year alone over 200,000 internally combusted vehicles were involved in fires, the Volt has received outsized attention as a representative of plug-in electrified vehicles which some have noted the Obama administration has since embraced.

Actually, the Volt offers broad appeal for those interested in not just the environment, but also national security, energy security, and in short, it has been said to represent a first step toward solving issues important to all political sensibilities, but perceptions at the moment are what they are.

The immediate “concerns” NHTSA raised leading to an investigation opened last month involved the threat of a battery fire starting hours or days after a Volt has already been totaled in a collision.

NHTSA has never suggested an EV battery could explode on impact, nor has it been able to get one to even easily catch fire after repeatedly crashing them.

The remedial engineering involving 2-3 pounds of extra steel in critical places to protect the Volt’s battery pack in a severe accident and to prevent battery coolant overfill were done by GM not because NHTSA said it had to, but GM said it really wants to prove it is offering a viable and safe technology.

It has thus been observed GM jumped through the hoops it did in response to fears and concerns more than actual quantifiable dangers. Those not unwilling to credit GM have said it acted with a commendable do-what-it-takes customer service attitude, and others more neutrally have said GM’s gesture was public relations damage control.

However one calls it, it is obvious that just mentioning the threat of “fire” over and over again has had a strong effect on public perceptions in today’s political and social climate – especially among those asked to contemplate a new technology that many in the mainstream do not fully understand.

Last month the media focused on GM’s initial efforts to assuage people’s fears including offering a loaner car while NHTSA’s investigation was carried out, and even offering to buy back Volts if asked to by worried owners.

Being under the public microscope as it is, GM has been careful how it presents itself, but it has conceded what it has done has been from a defensive position, and the biased and polemical sociopolitical environment it is striving against is becoming apparent.

Even normally conservative automotive publications have observed the complications with which plug-in cars have had to contend.

For example, WardsAuto has commented on the politicized nature of things. And worse than an attack on a car, company or administration, it sees the Volt’s Batterygate issue as part of a broader cultural problem adversely affecting American competitiveness.

In short, Wards contends U.S. innovation is being killed off by factional and divisive interests who brand a certain creation as belonging to their opponents, as an excerpt following shows:

The kind of innovation that builds new industries and creates tens of thousands of good jobs here in the U.S. is dying. Actually, dying is too kind a word. Innovation is being murdered in America.

… Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the Chevy Volt. It is the most innovative vehicle to come out of Detroit in a generation, yet Republicans are trying to kill it and Democrats and environmentalists are not digging into their own pockets to show it the support they say it deserves.

Yes, perceptions against the Volt are being portrayed as based on some facts mixed with an unhealthy dose of either inadvertent or deliberate fear mongering.

Speaking of which, some have also alleged GM’s offer of loaners, buybacks and now this battery system reinforcement were made because secretly it knew there were bigger technical issues to cover itself against, but GM Spokesman Rob Peterson said this is not the case.

The big-enough issue is the same as it ever was – redeeming post-bankruptcy GM’s name from the bad rap it got in some quarters over the years, and proving the Volt is viable.

“People’s impressions of General Motors go back years and it will take time and it will take deeds – not necessarily words – to prove that having satisfied customers is what we’re out to achieve,” Peterson said.

He noted that the latest Consumer Reports’ 93-percent rating for the Volt makes it number one in owner satisfaction and exceeds even a runner up from Porsche costing twice as much.

The Volt has also accrued a sizable list of awards, but did miss a goal of 10,000 U.S. sales this year in part, it is believed, because of repeated attempts to bring it down.

Throughout its inaugural year critics threw what allegations they could at the Volt, the media responded to the story du jour in predictable fashion, but one by one perceived issues were shown to be exaggerated and each “news cycle” died a natural death.

As for this latest issue, observers say GM needs to put it behind it, restore any lost confidence in its halo car and nascent market, and prepare to sell as many as 60,000 more Volts worldwide this year.

Now that the Volt is available in all 50 states, and being exported to Canada and to Europe as the Volt and Opel/Vauxhall Ampera sister vehicle, this year will be more telling how “ready for prime time” the Volt actually is.


  • Van

    Sales are poor because of limited availability and high price and poor performance, less than the expectations GM created with claims of 213 MPG.

  • Capt. Concernicus

    Fox News: Unfair and Biased.

  • MrEnergyCzar

    Right now I’m getting over twice the 230 mpg….about 540 mpg..

    MrEnergyCzar

  • DownUnder

    If I don’t drive too far and charge the Volt every day, does it mean I’ll have “Infinity” MPG?

  • Van

    The EPA method of MPGe is simply cooking the books. Miles per equivalent unit cost compares apples to apples. Lets say a car gets 45 MPG and a gallon of gas costs $3.60. So looking at the cost of the energy derived from the fuel we get 1.2 miles for a dimes worth of energy in the form of gas. Now electric rates are all over the place from less than 10 cents per kwh in some areas to more than 20 cents per kwh in other places. Lets us a realistic number like 15 cents per kwh. If you set aside the claims, EV’s get around 4 miles per kwh. Lets use 3.5 to be conservative. That works out to about 2.4 miles for a dimes worth of energy from electricity, or twice what a high mileage vehicle gets. So EV mileage is not 213 MPG or 500 or infinity as others have suggested, its about 90 MPGe on a conservative cost basis.

    Where it gets dicey is if you assume a slow rate of cost increase for electricity and a high rate of cost increase for gasoline, then in 3 years the same EV might be getting 150 MPGe.

  • DownUnder

    Van,

    The out of date MPG can’t be applied for Electric or plug-in cars.
    Some people suggested using Distance (Mile/Kilometre/whatever) Per Unit of Energy (KWh/KiloJoule/KiloCalorie/whatever) on this site some years ago.
    MPGe involves the price of electricity which varies b/w state and countries. Can’t be used to compare cars from the USA and Europe, for example.

  • Van

    Hi Sean T, what I am advocating is Miles per Fuel Cost equivalent, and in the example 1.2 Miles per dimes worth of gasoline versus 2.4 miles per dimes worth of electricity.

    Yes, the price of the two energy sources varies over time and location, but that does not prevent the EPA from including a cost per year assuming a gasoline price and a distance driven.

    What is good for the goose is good for the ….

  • Tony

    We’ve done 4500 miles in 5 months and get 70-75 MPGe at an average cost of 4.8c/mile. I think the MPGe is a good and fair measure to use. Wish GM would use it more. I use 34.02 KWh/gal to determine this. That is the most (running) cost efficient full range car in the market by a huge margin.

    I have many cars over the years (Audis, Mercs, BMWs, Hondas…). The Volt is outstanding. It is very innovative and the drive is fabulous. Once people get over their fears of the new technologies involved, negative media hype, and production costs come down due to mass production (particularly of the Lithium Ion battery technology), people will catch on and the Volt concept will become mainstream…. no question.

  • tapra1

    the fire’s cause following a 20-mph side-impact into a pole involved rupturing the battery’s coolant lines that led to short circuiting.Yaneto

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    The company added that the Volt is a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and has earned other safety awards from key third-party organizations. text spy

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