* Volt fire occurred in spring after a crash test
* U.S. seeks battery information from other automakers
* GM, Nissan, others say EV batteries are safe
By John Crawley and Ben Klayman
WASHINGTON/DETROIT, Nov 11 U.S. regulators are
investigating the safety of batteries used to power electric
vehicles after a General Motors Co Volt caught fire
following a crash test.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it
does not believe the Volt and other electric vehicles are at
greater risk for fire than those with gasoline-powered engines,
but said it has asked automakers for information on lithium-ion
batteries and recommendations for minimizing fire risk.
GM and other automakers said they were confident in the
technology, which is being rolled out in current electric cars
and the next wave of hybrid vehicles. Toyota Motor Corp's Prius, which dominates the hybrid market, is powered
by older nickel metal hydride battery technology.
The crash test for the Volt, which carries a 400-pound
lithium ion battery pack, was conducted last May at a facility
in Wisconsin, NHTSA said.
The fire did not break out until more than three weeks
after the side-impact crash test, and the reason for the fire
has not been determined, the agency said.
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.
"I want to make this very clear: The Volt is a safe car,"
Jim Federico, GM chief engineer for electric vehicles, said in
South Korean battery maker LG Chem Ltd , which
supplies the Volt battery cells, said in a statement that is
"fully aware of the situation and is working closely with GM
and NHTSA on the investigation."
A range of new electric vehicles, including the Volt and
upcoming models from Tesla Motors Inc and Fisker, are
powered by the kind of batteries that have long been used in
consumer electronics. Those batteries deliver the power that
electric vehicles require, but the current generation of
lithium-ion batteries also has a tendency to overheat.
If safety concerns were to slow the uptake of electric
vehicles, that could endanger President Barack Obama's goal of
putting 1 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.
Obama's "green economy" agenda is under fire from Republicans
in Congress whose criticism has included some taxpayer-funded
Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal, said it was to be
expected that electric vehicle technology would evolve and
automakers would develop new safeguards just as they have with
100 years of experience with gasoline engines.
"Catastrophic things happen in crashes of vehicles with any
type of fuel and obviously you have to manage those in
intelligent ways as you go along," he said.
Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety in
Washington, an advocacy group, said the more complex the
vehicle, the more likely it will be to have serious problems.
"The challenge for GM is to get on top of this as quickly
as possible. The last thing they want are Volts catching on
fire," Ditlow said.
GM and other auto companies said they have built in
protections on vehicle battery packs that would keep batteries
from overheating in the kind of "thermal runaway" event in
which an overheating cell causes a fire.
"I would much rather be riding on top of a battery than a
tank of gasoline," said Jason Forcier, vice president and
general manager of battery maker A123 Systems Inc's
auto business. "It's much, much safer."
A123's battery has a different chemistry than the Volt's
that he called "very, very safe." A123 makes the battery for
the Fisker Karma, the BMW hybrid 3- and 5-Series cars due out
next year and GM's all-electric Chevy Spark due in 2013.
Nissan Motor Co Ltd , the only major automaker with
an all-electric car, the Leaf, said its battery is different,
running cooler than the Volt's. Nissan acknowledged any
problems with EV technology could make some consumers nervous.
"Certainly, a competitor having issues with their systems,
there is always going to be some type of spillover, but our
product stands on its own," said Bob Yakushi, director of
product safety for Nissan North America.
Nissan officials said there have been no reports of Leaf
fires. About 17,500 Leafs have been sold globally, including
8,000 in the United States.
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
GM has sold about 5,000 Volts. The plug-in hybrid costs
$40,000 before a $7,500 consumer tax credit.
Separately, Duke Energy Corp has advised 125
customers to avoid using recently-installed Siemens home
charging stations for electric cars until a probe of a garage
fire in North Carolina is complete, spokeswoman Paige Layne
GM shares were off 12 cents in late trade on the New York
Stock Exchange at $22.58.
Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said he did not expect
any lasting impact on GM's shares, although the "negative
sentiment" could continue for several weeks.