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GM Volt fire risk a ‘chemical reaction issue’: Holden

High voltage: The Holden Volt should become Australia’s first range-extending electric vehicle within a year.

Holden boss defends Volt safety as US probe continues in wake of post-crash fires

Holden logo9 Dec 2011

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

GM HOLDEN chairman and managing director Mike Devereux has attempted to douse safety concerns in Australia over its forthcoming Volt plug-in hybrid as investigations continue in the US into why the vehicle caught fire after a crash test.

“It’s not really a GM or a Volt issue, it’s a lithium-ion chemical reaction issue,” said Mr Devereux in Sydney this week as Holden presented the Volt to the Australian media ahead of its market introduction here late next year.

Echoing comments from GM colleagues overseas, Mr Devereux said the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to power down the batteries after the crash test – as required by GM’s internal protocols – and that this led to the car catching fire in a holding yard.

As GoAuto has reported, the wrecked Volt was left with energised batteries and leaking coolant that apparently crystallised on cold nights, eventually shorting out the batteries and setting the vehicle alight some three weeks after the crash.

The NHTSA is now conducting an investigation into battery-related fires that could occur after a severe crash.

While all parties involved continue to emphasise that the Volt remains safe to drive, overseas reports this week show that investigators intend to analyse weld point on the underside of the vehicle near the battery pack.

Additional reinforcing around critical areas of the Volt has also been mooted as potential remedies.

Mr Devereux acknowledged that GM was working with the NHTSA to ascertain whether modifications were required on the vehicle.

13 center imageHowever, he said the key focus was to establish world-standard protocols in dealing with the shutting down of EVs fitted with a lithium-ion battery pack following a crash – a problem he said was inherent with the lithium-ion itself, not the Volt.

“Yes, we have had issues that the NHTSA organisation in the US in terms of fire,” Mr Devereux said.

“(During the) side impact test the battery pack was intruded the car sat for three weeks in their yard, and it caught fire. The fire was in the battery cells, and the battery pack became combustible.

“(But) the issue is that after the crash test – after a very, very, very violent crash test – the car was not depowered, and that is something I think NHTSA is learning.

“I think it speaks about the newness of EVs in general, and protocols of what happens after an accident will have to be more widely known and established all around the world.

“It’s not really a GM or a Volt issue, it’s a lithium-ion chemical reaction issue. NHTSA and those types of places around the world will have to work these types of protocols out, and General Motors is very proactive with NHTSA working out what types of protocols and modifications will have to be made.

“But the Volt is an extremely safe vehicle.”

Earlier this week, GM chief executive Dan Akerson told Associated Press that the company was prepared to recall the 6000 Volts it had built sold so far if instructed to by the US government, as it works on improved impact resistance.

Reports suggest that modifications could amount to $1000 per car and may involve the reinforcement of areas around the battery pack, electric circuits and coolant systems.

Meanwhile, GM said it was willing to buy back any Volts from US owners no longer willing to drive their vehicles as a result of fire fears, or at the very least provide them with temporary loan cars.

Due in the final quarter of 2012, the Holden Volt is expected to be Australia’s first range-extender electric vehicle.

Mr Devereux’s defence of the Volt comes after weeks of growing controversy in the US, where the NHTSA’s independence has also been questioned after it waited more than five months – until November 11 – before it went public with the Volt blaze.

The NHTSA and GM both claim to have remained silent on the fire risk findings until the situation was recreated in subsequent testing, as the initial incident was reportedly considered a “singular instance”.

Then, in the week from November 14, two subsequent NHTSA Volt impact tests revealed a fire in one powered-up car within hours of the crash while the other began to emit sparks and smoke.

Despite this, the NHTSA and the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have continued to award their top respective safety rating to the Volt.

Earlier this week it was announced that a US House subcommittee – under the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – will hold hearings next month to find out exactly why the NHTSA failed to publish its findings back in June.

According to an Automotive News report this week, one of the issues the committee is investigating is whether the US government’s push to promote EVs as part of its new fuel economy standards influenced the timing of the NHTSA’s disclosure about the fire.

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week denied the government withheld information regarding the first Volt fire in order to protect GM.

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