Why the Volt Battery ‘Crisis' Is More Heat than Light

Since 2004, when we first started adding batteries to Priuses to show the benefits of plugging in, people throughout the industry have worried that a single incident by garage engineers or small conversion companies could set back progress. 2007-09 saw a handful of fires in parked vehicles. In every case, we and others were able to demonstrate that the batteries were not the source of the incidents.

So, given reports of battery-related fires in Chevy Volts, as the company reported last week, is there now a worry about the safety of mass-produced plug-in cars?

Not really: There have been no fires in cars at the time of crashes. And it looks like owners, experts, and the media recognize that what happens to batteries after crashes (or even more extreme test-crashes) is a separate issue.

Even the anti-EV demagogues have been a bit restrained. Could that be because so many reports now cite the frequency of fires in internal combustion vehicles? In 2010, all vehicle types in the U.S. had 184,500 fires, mostly from liquid fuel tanks, resulting in 285 civilian deaths, 1,440 civilian injuries and $1 billion in direct property damage, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.

GM's offer of loaner cars to any of the 5,000 Volt owners was a smart move. And the response was telling: only a handful of people took them up on it. We're hearing about people who always wanted to drive a Corvette. Others who had signed up for GM's very favorable lease terms ($2,500 down + $350 a month for three years) saw an opportunity to avoid going over their 36,000-mile allowance. And owners have come together on Facebook to say "we're keeping our keys."

This mirrors other evidence of the Volt owners’ overall satisfaction. John Voelcker, senior editor at Green Car Reports, notes that owners are "ecstatically happy with their cars." Consumer Reports in its annual survey asked, "Considering all factors (price, reliability, comfort, enjoyment, etc.), would you get this car if you had it to do all over again?" 93 percent of Volt owners responding said yes, making the Volt is the highest-rated car in CR's national survey.

I personally have logged 13,106 miles on my Volt, and count myself among the "ecstatically happy." We at CalCars.org believe GM has built an amazing car. (At the same time, we have frequently described ways the cars could be even better, mostly in usability issues.)

My colleague Ron Gremban, Technology Lead for CalCars -- who led the team that, in 2004, created the world's first plug-in Prius, and who has owned two BMWs, a Corvette, and the first converted Prius -- considers the Volt by far the best of all.

In the past week, General Motors has engaged pro-actively with multiple audiences, resisting defensiveness, embracing a transparent approach, acknowledging unknowns. Most recently, CEO Dan Ackerson said the company would buy back Volts from any ultra-unhappy owners, and suggested that findings from the NHTSA investigation could result in design and production changes in the batteries of the Volt and the Opel Ampera.

In the analysis CalCars released, Ron says, "If GM was negligent in any way, it was in not widely distributing the procedures for handling Li-ion battery packs at the time the first vehicles were sold. (Relevant authorities already know how to handle air-cooled NiMh hybrid battery packs.) I would wager that, with the safety systems carmakers are incorporating, pure electric vehicle battery packs are far safer than gas tanks. However, since the Volt incorporates both propulsion systems, it also risks both possible sources of fire. The risks are small, though, and I do not think twice about keeping my Volt in my garage."

It would be a tragic waste if anti-EV forces succeeded in fueling this fire and intimidating people into retreating to a continued embrace of oil addiction.