U.S. safety regulators said today that they've closed an eight-week investigation into the Chevrolet Volt, concluding that the plug-in hybrid's battery doesn't pose a significant fire risk following a crash.
In a statement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it "does not believe that Chevy Volts or other electric vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles."
The agency said that modifications intended to reinforce the Volt's 435-pound lithium-ion battery pack that General Motors announced on Jan. 5 should "reduce the potential" of the pack catching fire in the days or weeks following a crash.
In November, NHTSA opened an investigation after two incidents in which the Volt's battery pack either caught fire or emitted sparks in the days or weeks following crash tests.
An earlier battery fire occurred in June, three weeks after the agency completed side-impact testing on the Volt.
In a statement, GM said NHTSA's decision to close the investigation "is consistent with the results of our internal testing and assessment." The automaker reiterated that the change it's making to protect the battery pack "is intended to make a safe vehicle even safer."
The agency's clearing of the Volt helps GM avert a potential hit to its image. The automaker's executives have held up the revolutionary car as a symbol of innovation and fresh thinking at the post-bankruptcy GM.
Despite broad praise for the car, U.S. sales of 7,671 Volts last year fell short of GM's goal of 10,000 units.
GM executives cooperated with NHTSA's investigation but have maintained that the Volt is safe. Company executives say the voluntary fix will make the car "safer" by reinforcing the steel surrounding the battery pack to prevent it from being punctured during a crash. It also will add a sensor to the battery pack to monitor coolant leaks.
GM is asking its 8,000 Volt customers to visit their Chevy dealership to have the work done. Dealers will be ready to perform the work starting in February, GM said.
GM said that about 250 Volt owners have taken GM up on its offer to provide loaner vehicles or to buy back the car to quell any safety concerns during the probe.
Testimony still to come
NHTSA said it still is unaware of any real-world Volt crashes that have resulted in a battery fire. It said the agency took the "unusual step" of opening the investigation because it wanted to "ensure the safety of the driving public with emerging [electric vehicle] technology."
A U.S. House panel hearing is scheduled on Wednesday to scrutinize how GM and regulators handled the investigation of the fire risks. GM CEO Dan Akerson has agreed to testify.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is also expected to hear from David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
PRESS RELEASE: NHTSA Statement on Conclusion of Chevy Volt Investigation
WASHINGTON, DC – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released the following statement today regarding the conclusion of its safety defect investigation into the post-crash fire risk of Chevy Volts (PE11037):
Today, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed its safety defect investigation into the potential risk of fire in Chevy Volts that have been involved in a serious crash. Opened on November 25, the agency's investigation has concluded that no discernible defect trend exists and that the vehicle modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts.
NHTSA remains unaware of any real-world crashes that have resulted in a battery-related fire involving the Chevy Volt or any other electric vehicle. NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles show great promise as a safe and fuel-efficient option for American drivers. However, as the reports released in conjunction with the closure of the investigation today indicate, fires following NHTSA crash tests of the vehicle and its battery components—and the innovative nature of this emerging technology—led the agency to take the unusual step of opening a safety defect investigation in the absence of data from real-world incidents.
Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe that Chevy Volts or other electric vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. Generally all vehicles have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash. However, electric vehicles have specific attributes that should be made clear to consumers, the emergency response community, and tow truck operators and storage facilities. Recognizing these considerations, NHTSA has developed interim guidance—with the assistance of the National Fire Protection Association, the Department of Energy, and others—to increase awareness and identify appropriate safety measures for these groups. The agency expects this guidance will help inform the ongoing work by NFPA, DOE, and vehicle manufacturers to educate the emergency response community, law enforcement officers, and others about electric vehicles.
For additional information on the Volt investigation and others, visit www.SaferCar.gov.