Following news of an industry wide federal electrified vehicle investigation announced two weeks ago, General Motors has since found itself the subject of a preliminary probe after impacted Chevy Volt batteries caught fire, and GM is responding to allay concerns.

On Friday the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) said following two fires created this month in a crash lab – although too soon to predict – a recall might even be necessary.

“NHTSA is continually working to ensure automakers are in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards, culling information to identify safety defects, and ensuring manufacturers conduct any necessary safety recalls,” said NHTSA, while adding further down in its statement, “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.”

The range-extended electric Volt has been scrutinized by both advocates and critics since before its launch in December 2010.

This latest PR entanglement is said to have been started because thus far its T-shaped LG Chem lithium-ion battery pack has been the only one to catch fire in crash tests.

As previously reported, the first fire in June was due to a side-impact crash test and occurred three weeks after the test had been conducted in May.

On Nov. 16, 17 and 18, after several months of trying to recreate a fire in a variety of tests, NHTSA managed to get two out of three stand-alone Volt battery packs to ignite following side-impact tests intended to simulate “real-world” scenarios.

The Nov 16 post-crash battery did not catch fire, but the other two were not so benign.

“During the test conducted on November 18 using similar protocols, the battery pack was rotated within hours after it was impacted and began to smoke and emit sparks shortly after rotation to 180 degrees,” NHTSA said. “NHTSA’s forensic analysis of the November 18 fire incident is continuing this week. Yesterday, the battery pack that was tested on November 17 and that had been continually monitored since the test caught fire at the testing facility.”

Although NHTSA says it is doing its investigation as a steward of safety for Americans, GM has noted it is deliberately disregarding GM’s post-crash safety procedures.

All Volts have OnStar communications which initiate a chain of commands leading to a GM team being dispatched to discharge a crashed Volt’s battery pack to prevent the possibility of fire.

But this has not stopped NHTSA from rupturing the charged batteries, leaving them charged, and even rotating them to simulate a rollover crash.

Presumably, the agency wants to account for the possibility that a battery might not be discharged in a timely manner. It presumably also would like to rule out the possibility that no several-hour or multi-day time lag – as has thus far been experienced – would be cut to just minutes and thereby threaten occupants from safely exiting a crashed Volt.

While noting no roadway fires are known to have occurred for the approximately 6,000 Volt drivers now on American roads, NHTSA said it is “concerned” that they could, while balancing its position by reaffirming its belief in electrified vehicles.

“NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles have incredible potential to save consumers money at the pump, help protect the environment, create jobs, and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on oil,” NHTSA said in a statement.

Some industry observers not wanting to go on record have said NHTSA may be taking the measures it is to cover its liabilities, particularly in light of public relations complications during the not-long-ago Toyota unintended acceleration investigation.

But just as NHTSA is raising the bar with what others call excessive scrutiny, GM has responded with measures intended to prove it is extremely sure of its product.

Yesterday, Mark Reuss, president, GM North America, reiterated GM has engineered a safe vehicle and said even he and his family are personally trusting the Volt.

“We stand 100 percent behind the quality and safety of the Chevrolet Volt – now and always,” Reuss said in an open letter to Volt owners, “I am also a Volt owner; my daughter drives it every day and she will continue to do so.”

However for those needing even more assurance, the company said it will offer more.

“The Volt is a five-star safety car,” Reuss said. “Even though no customer has experienced in the real world what was identified in this latest testing of post-crash situations, we’re taking critical steps to ensure customer satisfaction and safety.”

Reuss said any Volt owner concerned about safety can contact a Volt advisor to arrange for a free GM vehicle to borrow until resolution of the issue.

“A vehicle loan program of this nature is well beyond the norm for a preliminary investigation, and it underlines our commitment to the vehicle and its owners,” he said. “These steps are the right ones to take regardless of any immediate impact on our operations.”

Further, Mary Barra, senior vice president, Global Product Development, said a newly formed GM senior engineering team has been tasked to work with NHTSA to eliminate concern of potential post-crash electrical fires.

The team is also working with industry to ensure appropriate electric vehicle protocols were in place.


Chevy Volt’s li-ion battery.

Barra reiterated electrical fires have not occurred on public roads and added that NHTSA was not investigating any such potential imminent failure on the roads.

“GM and the agency’s focus and research continue to be on the performance, handling, storage and disposal of batteries after a crash or other significant event,” she said. “We’re working with NHTSA so we all have an understanding about these risks and how they can be avoided in the future. This isn’t just a Volt issue. We’re already leading a joint electric vehicle activity with Society of Automotive Engineers and other automotive companies to address new issues, such as this protocol of depowering batteries after a severe crash.”

Barra said the team would continue to work closely with NHTSA, suppliers, dealers and manufacturing teams to initiate any necessary changes as soon as possible.

About those government ‘concerns’

There is no doubt the culture we live in is increasingly catering for safety and given the opportunity, what would have formerly been considered extremely conservative views can hold sway.

Society has grandfathered in the proven dangers of conventional vehicles, and learned to deal with them as well as possible.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 215,500 fires in the U.S. involving vehicles that use gasoline or diesel.

It has been said fear of the relative unknown – the specific design of electrified vehicle batteries – is driving the thorough examination. President Obama has said he’d like to see one million EVs on American roads by 2015, and before society gets too far, they are receiving extra diligence.

Opinions on the government’s actions have ranged between extremes. On one hand, some have said NHTSA’s scrutiny is well-intentioned and fully merited. Others have gone so far as to suggest conspiracy theories that vested interests are attacking the Volt and EV industry in general.

As Chevrolet’s controversial “halo” vehicle, the Volt has been said to threaten the established order by being a viable electrical vehicle with no “range anxiety.”

Because it was the product of a company that would have gone under if not for billions in federal loans, and is being subsidized by federal tax breaks, the car has been something of a political football.

In the highly politicized arena that is Washington, insiders say NHTSA does not operate in a political vacuum, but no industry insiders have stated to us their belief in extreme motives such as Big Oil is somehow pulling NHTSA’s strings, or anything like that.

At any rate, GM has said it will play ball with NHTSA and others as the government investigates all contingencies. GM has said it believes resolution will be met, and no doubt, it would like to see it quickly and with as much damage control as possible.

Ultimately, time will tell what the latest public scrutiny GM and its Volt are enduring actually means. If it can be shown more safety does need to be baked in, then perhaps the best time to do it will be while numbers of Volts on the road are yet limited.