U.S. safety official "comfortable" with Volt fix

DETROIT Sun Jan 8, 2012 9:28pm EST

DETROIT Jan 8 (Reuters) - The agency that monitors U.S. vehicle safety is "comfortable" that a proposed fix to the Chevrolet Volt eliminates the risk of fire days after the electric car is involved in a crash, a senior official said on Sunday.

David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said a solution proposed by General Motors Co addresses the causes of fires observed in the Volt in federal safety tests last year.

"We felt comfortable with it," Strickland said on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show.

NHTSA launched a probe of the Volt's battery pack in November.

Last week, GM said it had developed a fix for the Volt that would better protect the vehicle's 400-pound lithium ion battery by adding steel reinforcements and taking other steps to prevent coolant fluid from leaking and triggering a fire.

GM said it had shared its engineering and test results with NHTSA and was optimistic that its proposed fix would allow the U.S. safety agency to close its investigation.

GM said it would begin making the repairs at Chevy dealerships in February. The automaker has sold about 8,000 Volts in the United States, just over half of the target it had set for the past year.

"While GM has moved forward, we still have some work to do," Strickland said. "Hopefully, we'll be concluding fairly soon, but our investigation is still open."

A relatively quick solution to the Volt safety issue would mean that GM could avoid a time-consuming and costly distraction and a recall of a key "halo" vehicle.

GM has made the Volt the symbol of its determination to seize a leadership position in fuel economy and green technology and its engineers have been racing to respond to a safety investigation by U.S. regulators since late last year.

At a separate event also in downtown Detroit, GM's chief executive, Dan Akerson, said the automaker may have to adjust production rates for the Volt.

"We're going to match production with demand," said Akerson when asked about meeting Volt sales targets. "There are new variables in the equation, so we'll see. We've been responsive to our customers' needs, and, at the end of the day, that will serve us well," Akerson said.

The Volt's battery is designed to provide a range of about 40 miles on electric power. The plug-in hybrid also has a gasoline-powered 1.4-liter engine to provide additional range after the battery has been drawn down.

The plug-in hybrid costs $40,000 before a $7,500 federal tax credit in the United States.