By on November 17, 2011

I caught hell from a number of TTAC’s Best and Brightest five days ago, when I blogged about the Chevrolet Volt fire at a NHTSA facility but failed to initially note GM’s response. At the time, GM’s Greg Martin said

GM has safety procedures for handling the Volt and its battery after an accident. Had those been followed, there wouldn’t have been a fire.

At the time, a number of readers accused me of bias for not including Martin’s response at first. Eventually I conceded that this was some worthwhile perspective for the story, but I cautioned that it only represented the opinion of one GM employee. Whether or not NHTSA actually followed those procedures remained an open question… until now. Automotive News [sub] is reporting that NHTSA couldn’t possibly have followed those procedures, nor indeed could anyone else, for the simple reason that GM failed to share them with anybody. So not only is the NHTSA fire being blamed on the fact that government regulators were not given the necessary safety procedures, but it turns out that rescue workers, salvage yards, towing companies and the like were not taught how to discharge the Volt’s battery either. In other words, this NHTSA crash was an important eye-opener for the Volt team.

GM had trained a number of rescue workers prior to the rollout, showing how to disconnect the Volt’s batteries and rescue occupants without running the risk of electrocution. But the NHTSA fire was caused because the Volt’s battery wasn’t fully drained before being put in storage, and this key safety step managed to escape the rescue training as well. Says GM’s Rob Peterson

We had a process [for draining the battery] internally but I don’t believe it was shared with anyone. The incident with NHTSA raised awareness that we had to develop a procedure and alert all stakeholders.

GM’s EV engineering honcho Jim Federico adds

The fire occurred because the battery wasn’t completely discharged after the test… GM developed its battery depowering process for the Volt after NHTSA’s test.

Though not as bad as a technical defect, this oversight is certainly a bit embarrassing to GM, which now has to endure the lectures of folks like Clarence Ditlow of the Naderite Center For Auto Safety, who rants

I can’t conceive that they didn’t have a standard operating procedure in place for handling a wrecked vehicle before the car went on sale. NHTSA and GM should have established protocols in place before it went on sale.

And you have to admit, he has a point…

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38 Comments on “About Those Chevy Volt Safety Protocols…...”


  • avatar
    Alex French

    Wow, that’s quite the oversight. Luckily the problem was discovered in a safety testing lab and not someone’s garage.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      Would a severely wrecked vehicle been in someone’s garage 3 weeks later while still in its wrecked form? BTW, it would be leaking at this time too and need to be cold enough to crystallize the coolant. While not impossible, I really doubt someone would have it 3 weeks after and still leaking.

  • avatar
    segfault

    Typical GM. What do you bet our government is corrupt enough to bail them out a second time in about twenty or thirty years, just like Chrysler?

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Which government are you speaking of, the last one, the current one, or the one that will be populated with folks that are today only 10 years old?

      Geez Louise, I sure get tired of such comments…

    • 0 avatar
      FleetofWheel

      segfault, you got your answer. GM gets unlimited do-overs because each bail-out occurs with a different govt in place. So the prior bail-outs really don’t count.

      Presumably, US debt acquired in prior eras could be expunged with this logic.

  • avatar
    tylanner

    It is actually pretty startling to find out that there was nothing in place outside of GM to mitigate the new types of safety concerns that this technology presents. I mean does it not come with a new car user manual? The user manual seems like the perfect place to inform the new owner of certain “unconventional” hazards associated with electric cars. Also proper salvage and disposal procedures should have been distributed to important players. From my point of view this is a pretty big lapse in organizational discipline and integrity on the part of GM.

    • 0 avatar

      This is indeed startling. For any other household appliance there are stricter rules, as it seems. It also shows that common sense is a rare commodity today.
      I foresee a new generation of warning labels, like “Batteries might be less discharged than they appear”, “Electrocuted when wet”.
      Wait, until the lawyers enter the game…

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      The user’s manual is the perfect place to inform the owners who actually take the time to read it. Its also probably a great place for the manufacturers to cover their butts.

      “Oh, customer XYZ didn’t know about the potential for fiery death? Well, I put it on pages 155 and 238 of the owner’s manual. Not my fault they didn’t read it.”

      I think its a reasonable to expect that someone will read and understand the owner’s manual on their new $40k vehicle, but I’ll bet it rarely ever happens.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      Have you read the manual? Do you know what it says? Does your manual today say how first responders and junk yards should deal with the vehicle?

  • avatar
    highdesertcat

    I read a comment somewhere that these batteries cannot be any more dangerous or volatile than the nuclear batteries the US and the USSR used for decades in their satellites, many of those are still circling the earth in dead satellites waiting to fall back to earth.

    Obviously, this was something that had been overlooked by the Volt R&D team. Let’s hope that they didn’t overlook anything else that could be life-threatening or fatal, like explosion potential or charger fires.

    Good work Edward! Your comment brought this to light.

    • 0 avatar
      chuckrs

      I read a comment somewhere that these batteries cannot be any more dangerous or volatile than the nuclear batteries the US and the USSR used

      Maybe not. IIRC, at least one US nuke-powered satellite was on a rocket that failed to launch properly. The battery was fished out of the Atlantic, checked and successfully reintegrated and relaunched with another satellite. These batteries convert radioactive decay heat to electricity and are not reactors, thank G*d.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      “Danger” is a debatable matter relating to potential energy, kinetic energy, and the probability of being exposed to these risks.

      You are in no danger in a high speed car until you hit a wall.
      You are in no danger in a stopped car until you are hit.
      The probability of either happening is low.

      A comparison to satellite ‘nuclear batteries’ is apples and oranges. GM would be happy if the Volt was subject to reentry burnup before humans were exposed to it after a wreck. Personally, I’d rather deal with a reentered satellite than a fiery crashed Volt – the Volt thing is much more likely to happen.

      The recent TTAC story on car fires illustrates this point well; although declining annually, there are still about 190k car fires every year in the US. Nearly all of them contain gasoline or diesel fuel, which potentially adds to each fire. In the case of the Volt, its lithium ion battery could really catalyze a fire. Here is a famous example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pizFsY0yjss

    • 0 avatar
      GS650G

      http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2011/11/after-n-c-fire-duke-energy-advises-customers-to-suspend-use-of-electric-car-chargers/

      Whoops looks like somebodies 800K house burned down and the fire started near the charger for their volt.
      Rich enough to afford a million dollar house, they buy a eco car with taxpayer assistance and it ends up costing them their home. The probably can afford expensive lawyers too.

      As to satellites, they burn up in the atmosphere on the way down, the Volt isn’t 20 miles up so that disposal method won’t work here.

    • 0 avatar
      GS650G

      They put the charger in for the Volt, no?

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Maybe Bertel knos for sure, but I’m of the impression that European VMs have to develop and publish a kind of rescue instruction book PRIOR to the sale of a new vehicle.

    The one for my lowly Smart car was quite impressive and available for free on the web.

  • avatar

    Ed,

    GM has trained first responders but the emphasis there was on avoiding electrocution and how to disconnect the battery to protect crash survivors and first responders.

    GM’s protocol for the Volt involves sending out a team any time the air bags are activated. That team discharges the battery. How this will work when there are 50,000 Volts on the road as opposed to just 5,000, I’m not sure. In the case of the NHTSA fire, since it was a test vehicle, GM never sent out a team.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      So it was a good thing that this fire happened to a test vehicle.

      Of the 5000 Volt cars on the road now it is not an unlikely scenario they too, could be involved in a crash, even if the driver of the Volt is not at fault.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven02

        This fire happened 3 weeks later. This wasn’t going to trap someone in and start the fire quickly.

        They had protocols out there, just not one for discharging the battery apparently.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      The Prius faced a similar issue in it’s early years, and I believe that most responders are equipped with, and the car’s electrical system is self-documented as such that, it’s not particularly hard to deal with. The wires are made evident, and the procedure for cutting the frame, dealing with the battery and such are known.

      So it’s not really likely to be a problem, operationally.

      • 0 avatar
        gslippy

        One major difference is that the Prius battery isn’t lithium ion, whose inflammatory qualities are manifold. But otherwise, you are correct.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        True, but at it’s release there was concern we’d be electrocuting first-responders with regularity. It hasn’t happened, we probably said the same about “these new-fangled gas-powered con-veyances, why my horse won’t explode!” in 9890 and I don’t think we’ll be immolating or zapping people due to the Volt, either.

    • 0 avatar
      Morea

      when there are 50,000 Volts on the road

      Had to read this twice! (‘Volts’ as in cars, not ‘Volts’ as in units of electrical potential. Curse those cutesy car names and the marketing people that think them up!)

    • 0 avatar
      Herm

      “GM’s protocol for the Volt involves sending out a team any time the air bags are activated. That team discharges the battery. ”

      Its not easy to fully discharge a Volts pack, it requires specialized equipment and probably an hour or two.. the part that nobody mentions is that once you do that you ruin any potential salvage value for a very expensive part..

      GM would prefer to salvage the pack but who will disassemble it for inspection?,.. not a dealership, they dont have the skills for that dangerous task, and you cant ship a potentially explosive damaged pack back to Hamtramk. The GM safety team will fully discharge it, perhaps take it apart to make sure and then scrap the battery.

      What will this do to insurance rates?, perhaps nothing since such crashes are rare, but who will decide if the pack needs close inspection?.. did the impact jar a coolant connection loose?.. the coolant could be leaking slowly internally and you would never know since the outside of the case looks fine.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Though not as bad as a technical defect, this oversight is certainly a bit embarrassing to GM, which now has to endure the lectures of folks like Clarence Ditlow of the Naderite Center For Auto Safety, who rants…

    You know, this article was totally okay until this point, unless you’re being sarcastic.

    If GM has a safety procedure that wasn’t followed because it wasn’t published, well, yes, that’s an oops, and Ditlow certainly has a point. That said, it’s probably smart for anyone dealing with a wreck, and especially when we’re talking about NHTSA engineers and a wreck of a car that contains lithium-ion batteries, to ask the OEM what to do in the event of a wreck.

    • 0 avatar
      Morea

      I wanted to second this comment.

      As with most incidents there is plenty of blame to go around. It is futile to try to separate the “good guys” from the “bad guys”.

      GM should have made the information widely available, in particular to the NHTSA if they knew a crash test was planned. The NHTSA should have known better, or at least should have thought through the issues. After all “safety” is their objective. Safety analysis always entails asking lots of “What if?” questions.

  • avatar
    bodegabob

    There must be some way to blame Bob Lutz in this.

  • avatar
    FleetofWheel

    You’ve got to have some pity for people like Clarence Ditlow and Joan Claybrook as all this Volt, Prius and Leaf stuff gets scary real.

    As they look out on the near/mid term horizon and see roads and cities chock full of hybrid and electric cars (and people enjoying the mobility!), they’ll have to advance the next stage of their real vision which is essentially:

    ‘Hey people, when we said we wanted safer and fuel efficient cars, we really meant we wanted very few cars and most of you sitting on a bus’.

  • avatar
    ixim

    The careless lack of well known procedures aside, EVERY crashed car has a bomb’s worth of energy lurking in it. In the Volt’s case, two of them – several gallons of high test gasoline and that battery pack. What a combination!

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    I would suggest that a requirement for OEMs to have a menu on their websites for first-responder instructions by vehicle and MY would be sensible.

    • 0 avatar
      sunridge place

      don’t think its really necessary to put that info right on the brand webpage.

      the first google hit on ‘gm emergency response’ gives you GM’s site:

      https://www.gmstc.com/FirstResponder.aspx

      • 0 avatar
        zerofoo

        After looking at the first responder docs, the volt appears to be sensibly designed. High voltage cables are routed in the center of the vehicle, where they are best protected in a crash, and far away from typical “cut zones” used during an extraction.

        The documentation doesn’t say how to “discharge” the batteries, only how to safely disconnect the battery, and what cables to avoid cutting. I’m not sure it is possible to safely discharge that amount of electric current without causing a battery overheat condition.

        Apart from late 60’s muscle cars, I have never been a huge GM fan, but it appears that the Volt is a solid product. I’ve seen quite few here in the North East, and the owners I’ve talked to really like them.

        Now if they could only get the cost down….

        -ted

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Errrr, whoops. I don’t understand it though… yeah GM slipped their disco on this but what was everyone else doing as well. Weren’t questions being raised?

    I remember, and Sajeev can probably back this up, of the hoopla over the first gen HID lights on the Lincoln. Ford had special procedures and training sessions for first responders because of the dangers of the lighting system even though they had safety features built in. I think it was only videos, but still they made sure everyone was aware of the new lights.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    About a month ago the Chev dealership invited the local fire dept to their shop for some Volt information. Maybe I can find out what they learned.

  • avatar
    ideaman4

    I wonder if Nissan, Mitsubishi, Tesla or any of the other EV Manufacturers have a procedure for this and have communicated it to NHTSA and all first/second responders? I’m betting not. If they did, shouldn’t NHTSA already have known about it?

    I guess the point is it’s easy to point at GM and say ‘What an oversight!’ but truth is it doesn’t appear that anyone else thought about it either.

  • avatar
    SVT48

    First, why wouldn’t NHTSA personnel think to discharge the batteries just like you would any electrical device (tube TV, microwave oven, anything with a capacitor, etc.) before you work on it? Second, why don’t EVs and hybrids have some sort of electrical master switch like race cars?

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      One, lithium-ion batteries are still flammable when discharged.

      Two, there is a cutoff switch/breaker that activates on impact (I believe most modern cars do something similar with fuel supply), but you can’t guarantee that it hasn’t been shorted, which is why, eg, using the Jaws of Life on a Prius requires you to know where stuff has been routed and be sure you aren’t a ground.

  • avatar
    SVT48

    I didn’t think the fact that the batteries were flammable was the issue (in this case) but rather that GM didn’t provide a procedure for properly discharging them after an accident. There are lots of things in cars that are highly flammable or burn at extremely high temperatures with no special warnings, old style magnesium wheels or computer components for example. This will probably get worse as technology is pushed to provide increased fuel economy.


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