* No battery fires in three IIHS crash tests this year
* IIHS 'top safety pick' promoted by GM
* NHTSA also has no plan to change its "five star" rating
By John Crawley
WASHINGTON, Dec 5 An influential insurance
group has no plans to strip the Chevrolet Volt of its top crash
safety rating or retest the vehicle, bolstering General Motors' position that its electric car is safe despite a probe
of battery fires by federal regulators.
While the Volt represents less than 1 percent of GM's U.S.
sales, the plug-in hybrid has been the centerpiece of the top
U.S. automaker's attempt to rebrand itself as a leader in
green-car technology and fuel efficiency.
The 2011 GM Volt received five stars for safety in
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing last February.
The ratings from the group, which is underwritten by
insurance companies, are closely watched by consumers and are
often used in automakers' marketing.
The safety group found no evidence of damage to the Volt's
battery packs in its tests.
"If we had found that the battery pack had been damaged or
certainly if we had subsequent concerns about fire risk - that
would have raised red flags," IIHS spokesman Russ Rader told
Rader said IIHS would not repeat tests in this case because
its role "is not to investigate potential defects."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened
an investigation on Nov. 25 into the safety of the Volt's
battery pack after its own repeated tests uncovered fire
A lithium-ion battery pack in a Volt that had been through
a NHTSA crash test in May caught fire three weeks later at a
test facility in Wisconsin.
In other battery tests completed Nov 18 by NHTSA, a second
Volt pack began to smoke and throw off sparks. A third battery
also tested by NHTSA caught fire as well.
NHTSA also has no plans to change the Volt's "five-star"
safety rating, another key resource for consumers.
But Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and
long-time safety advocate, said the problem is now known and
IIHS should do more work.
"They have a duty to inform people when they've rated a
vehicle as 'top rated' and make it clear there's a problem,"
IIHS assesses driver and passenger protection in front,
rear, side impact crashes and roof strength.
GM noted the IIHS "top safety pick" designation in its
letter to Volt owners last week that explained circumstances
behind two battery fires and offering them a loaner car.
It has since offered to buy back Volts. GM sold more than
6,100 this year through November.
GM previously noted the Volt battery pack, which weighs 400
pounds, gives the small car additional mass that provided an
edge in IIHS testing of passenger protection.
Although it is in its early stages, the NHTSA probe could
eventually lead to a recall. GM CEO Dan Akerson told Reuters in
an interview on Thursday the Volt was safe, but GM may redesign
In the IIHS side test - the one most similar to NHTSA's
"pole test" - the Volt was rammed with a frame designed to
mimic an accident with a pickup or SUV. Unlike the NHTSA test,
Rader said the impact did not intrude into the battery area.
The group contacted GM following the tests. IIHS crews
deactivated the Volt's electrical system, while a team
dispatched by GM drained the batteries. GM repurchased two of
the cars to be disassembled, IIHS and the automaker said.
In two other cases, IIHS has repeated crash tests for cars
and trucks that it judged presented fire risks - the 2000 Isuzu
Trooper SUV and 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan minivan.