Feds Open Chevy Volt Safety Probe Following Crash Test Battery Fire

General Motors (GM) is offering owners of its Chevy Volt a free loaner vehicle if they are concerned about the possibility of a battery fire. The offer follows a decision by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to open a formal investigation of the Chevy Volt, after recent crash tests resulted in one battery pack catching fire and one smoking and emitting sparks.

The hybrid Chevy Volt is powered by a lithium-ion battery and has an electric motor onboard to power the vehicle when the charge runs low. Lithium ion batteries are used also used all-electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster. As we reported earlier this month, the NHTSA began looking at the batteries following a fire at a Wisconsin garage where agency was storing a wrecked Chevy Volt. The fire occurred this spring, three weeks after the Chevy Volt was damaged in a side-impact crash test. General Motors had blamed the agency for the fire, alleging the blaze occurred because the lithium-ion battery had not been deactivated properly.

According to a report from The Financial Times, the NHTSA has since been able to replicate the battery fire during three tests conducted earlier this month. While the first test, conducted on November 16, did not result in a fire, a battery pack on a second Chevy Volt caught fire a week after it was subjected to a crash test on November 17. A Volt crash tested on November 18 resulted in the emission of sparks and smoke from the battery.

“NHTSA is not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries,” the agency said in a statement. “However, the agency is concerned that damage to the Volt’s batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire. NHTSA is therefore opening a safety defect investigation of Chevy Volts, which could experience a battery-related fire following a crash. Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern.”

The NHTSA said that if the investigation uncovers an “unreasonable risk to safety,” it would take immediate action “to notify consumers and ensure that GM communicates with current vehicle owners.” While such action could include a recall, the statement said it was too early to tell if that would be the case.

In its own statement, GM said there have been no comparable incidents reported in the field, pointing to the fact that all Chevy Volts are equipped with the OnStar system, which would report in real time “any crash significant enough to potentially compromise battery integrity.”

Nevertheless, GM is trying to reassure the 6,000 vehicle owners who have purchased a Chevy Volt. “Any Volt owner concerned about safety can contact his or her Volt advisor to arrange for a free GM vehicle loan until resolution of the issue,” GM said in a statement.

“The Volt is a five-star safety car. Even though no customer has experienced in the real world what was identified in this latest testing of post-crash situations, we’re taking critical steps to ensure customer satisfaction and safety,” Mark Reuss, president, GM North America, said.

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