U.S. probes EV batteries after Chevy Volt fire

WASHINGTON/DETROIT Fri Nov 11, 2011 3:23pm EST

A Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle is plugged into a charging station during a news conference where GM Ventures announced an equity investment in Sunlogics Inc, a global solar energy systems provider specializing in solar project development and installation at Sunlogics new manufacturing center in Rochester Hills, Michigan July 28, 2011.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

A Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle is plugged into a charging station during a news conference where GM Ventures announced an equity investment in Sunlogics Inc, a global solar energy systems provider specializing in solar project development and installation at Sunlogics new manufacturing center in Rochester Hills, Michigan July 28, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

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WASHINGTON/DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. regulators are investigating the safety of batteries used to power electric vehicles after a General Motors Co Chevrolet Volt caught fire following a routine crash test.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on Friday that it has asked other manufacturers who make electric cars or who plan to do so for information on how they handle lithium-ion batteries. The request also includes recommendations for minimizing fire risk.

NHTSA said it does not believe the Volt and other electric vehicles are at greater risk for fire than gasoline-powered engines.

"First and foremost, I want to make this very clear: The Volt is a safe car," Jim Federico, GM chief engineer for electric vehicles, said in a statement.

"We are working cooperatively with NHTSA as it completes its investigation," he added. "However, NHTSA has stated that based on available data, there's no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gas-powered car."

The Volt is a plug-in electric hybrid that also has a gasoline engine. The Volt crash test was conducted last May at a facility in Wisconsin. The fire did not break out until more than three weeks later.

GM said it was not aware of any other Volt fires. A senior NHTSA official said the agency has received no consumer complaints about fires involving GM or other electric cars.

Both GM and NHTSA conducted follow-up tests and could not repeat the fire. The agency plans additional electric car battery tests with Energy Department experts in coming weeks.

GM shares were off 12 cents in late trade on the New York Stock Exchange at $22.58.

If safety concerns were to slow the uptake of electric vehicles, that could endanger President Barack Obama's goal of putting a million EVs on the road by 2015.

To drive that goal, the Energy Department has provided about $2.5 billion in funding to battery companies, automakers and related firms in recent years.

A range of new electric vehicles, including the Volt and upcoming models from Tesla Motors Inc and Fisker, are powered by the same kind of lithium-ion batteries that have long been used in consumer electronics.

Those batteries deliver the power and range that electric vehicles require, but the current generation of lithium-ion batteries also has a tendency to overheat.

Nissan Motor Co Ltd makes the other mass-produced electric car, the Leaf. Nissan officials said there have been no reports of Leaf fires.

"The Nissan Leaf battery pack has been designed with multiple safety systems in place to help ensure its safety in the real world," Nissan spokesman David Reuter said.

"All of our systems have been thoroughly tested to ensure real-world performance," he added. "To date, the more than 8,000 Nissan Leafs driving on the U.S. roads have performed without reported incident."

South Korean battery maker LG Chem Ltd, which supplies the Volt battery cells, had no immediate comment. Officials at Tesla, Fisker and battery maker A123 Systems Inc could not immediately be reached.

NHTSA said the Volt crash test last May -- a side-impact test -- damaged the battery pack, but the exact reason for the fire is not yet clear.

"Apparently, there was some cell activity, latent activity that resulted in the fire," the NHTSA official said. "That cell activity we don't know."

The Volt carries a nearly 400-pound lithium-ion battery in a T-shape that sits across the rear and runs down the middle of the car between the passenger seats.

American consumers have been slow to embrace electric and rechargeable vehicles, in part because of their additional cost. Pure electric vehicles like the Leaf also have limited range before recharging.

The Volt has a gas-powered 1.4-liter engine to provide additional range after it has run about 40 miles on a fully-charged battery.

GM has sold about 5,000 Volts. The plug-in hybrid costs $40,000 before a $7,500 consumer tax credit.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki in Detroit; Editing by Derek Caney, Gerald E. McCormick and John Wallace)

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Comments (3)
ramon123 wrote:
Obama’s goal of a million EVs is silly – we have over 250 million cars on the road. Less than one half of one percent being electric ain’t going to affect anything. Of course our semi-illiterate President is also mathematically challenged. At $7500 subsidy per electric car, it looks like $7.5 billion of taxpayer funds will be required to achieve this meaningless goal. When battery prices are 80% lower, the electric cars will take over. And we won’t have to spend one dime of taxpayer money. Obama has very easy time flushing taxpayer dollars down the toilet – just look at his “green” investments, including the $120 billion in stock of GM and Chrysler (not an American company, of all things). That stock is worth far less than what the taxpayer paid for it. Of course, it allowed Obama’s union buddies to keep their exorbitant wages and get 10% ownership of GM plus big bonuses for signing those obscene wage contracts.

Nov 11, 2011 4:48pm EST  --  Report as abuse
kafantaris wrote:
It is ironic that all along we feared mysterious fires from hydrogen cars, and now come to find out that this actually a problem with battery cars — the very ones we presumed to be safe. And at the same time, and after millions of miles, no hydrogen car has caught fire, let alone do so three weeks after a crash.
Nonetheless, our Energy Secretary has put hydrogen on the back backburner and instead poured billions of dollars into battery cars. Somebody should have told him that putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good thing. It is certainly not a good thing when you ignore important hydrogen research to do so. Significant developments in hydrogen storage, hydrogen fuel cells, and cheaper hydrogen generation have land at the Energy Department’s doorstep, but Secretary looks the other way. Not good enough, he says. “Practical hydrogen powered cars would take five miracles. And saints need only three!”
Actually, we might need only one miracle. And that is for President Obama to show our Energy Secretary the door.

Nov 11, 2011 6:23pm EST  --  Report as abuse
SouthernBeale wrote:
Pfft. This is a bunch of nonsense. The fired didn’t start until THREE WEEKS after the crash test? How do we even know the crash is what started the fire? One fire and thousands of cars on the road and we have partisans making negative comments about Obama already. That figures.

Let’s go wage some more resource wars in the Middle East to fuel our transportation needs, that’s a genius plan. At least Obama is trying to get us off the oil teet. More than I can say for the Republican’ts.

Nov 11, 2011 8:37pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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