By on November 11, 2011

The Chevy Volt fire rumors started early this week, when the utility company Duke Energy told its customers to stop using their Chevy Volt home chargers after an October 30 fire. At last word, NHTSA said that

No conclusions have yet been reached regarding the cause of the fire. We are continuing to monitor the situation.

But it seems that the investigation is coming home, as Bloomberg just reported that a Chevy Volt caught fire at a NHTSA facility, shortly weeks after being crash tested.

The Volt caught fire while parked at a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing center in Wisconsin, three weeks after a side-impact crash test, said an agency official. The official, as well as the three other people familiar with the inquiry, said they couldn’t be named because the investigation isn’t public.

The fire was severe enough to burn vehicles parked near the Volt, the agency official said. Investigators determined the battery was the source of the fire, the official said.

Ruh-Roh!

GM’s response came from spokesman Greg Martin, who insists that the Volt would not have caught fire had NHTSA followed GM’s post-crash safety protocols.

In June, GM and NHTSA both crashed a Volt and could not replicate the May fire, 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, he said in a phone interview.

“There are safety protocols for conventional cars,” Martin said. “As we develop new technology, we need to ensure that safety protocols match the technology.”

The Volt has received NHTSA’s top safety rating based on crash testing, although in the side impact test, some metal did apparently penetrate the Volt’s battery. Whether or not that’s related to this latest fire, whether NHTSA did in fact follow post-crash procedures and other key details remain unconfirmed at this time. The government is in contact with other automakers currently selling or planning to sell cars with lithium-ion batteries as its investigation rolls on.

UPDATE: GM Chief EV Engineer Jim Federico writes

First and foremost, I want to make this very clear: the Volt is a safe car. We are working cooperatively with NHTSA as it completes its investigation. However, NHTSA has stated that based on available data, there’s no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gas-powered car.

Safety protocols for electric vehicles are clearly an industry concern. At GM, we have safety protocols to depower the battery of an electric vehicle after a significant crash.

We are working with other vehicle manufacturers, first responders, tow truck operators, and salvage associations with the goal of implementing industry-wide protocols.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

63 Comments on “Chevy Volt Catches Fire After Crash Test, Investigation Under Way...”


  • avatar
    johnhowington

    will this be the volt’s 2004 howard dean campaign derail moment?

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    CRASH AND BURN, BABY!

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Ruh-Roh indeed.

    The Volt has proven a tough pill to swallow even before questions about its safety emerge. If this brush fire isn’t extinguished quickly and smartly, the Volt’s reputation will be toast and it’ll avoided like the plague.

    Shame, just when sales were starting to nudge upward.

    BTW, I just saw my first (non-demonstrator) Volt in a Wawa parking lot last night. It was red.

  • avatar
    NN

    so it caught fire three weeks after the side impact?? While a cause for concern, it doesn’t mean that they blow up upon impact. It probably means more that the insurance company will be quick to total it if there are any accidents (to avoid future fires, etc.), which means higher rates.

    I think the garage fire concern while charging is more valid…that scares me much more than a fire that lit in a totaled car three weeks after it was hit

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      I think I would rather have a fire at the time of impact (provided I am not trapped inside) than have to wonder if the car will spontaneously combust weeks later in my garage.

      The Volt is starting to look more like the Vega: GM’s answer to import technology, loved at first, loathed soon after.

  • avatar
    Wagen

    Volt? Ampera? Nah, I’ll go with Fiero.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Do they drain gasoline, oil and other flammables from crashed cars now? Do they remove the battery?

    Did they do anything similar with the Volt? Or did they leave it parked, exposed to elements, with its batteries in-place?

    This honestly seems like scaremongering without those kinds of details.

  • avatar

    Three weeks after they crashed it. That isn’t a glaring safety problem. If they didn’t disconnect the batteries after crashing the thing and they were damaged from the impact then what else did they think would happen. I’m pretty sure this should be a concern for wrecking any electric car. You need to make sure the batteries are isolated and removed if they show signs of damage.

    Now if they are spontaniously combusting in people’s garages without being wrecked, that’s a big deal. I don’t see this as a defect in the design.

  • avatar
    racebeer

    So let me get this straight …. this was three weeks after the crash test, and it’s shortly after? Now granted this isn’t a good thing to have happen, but if there was a three week lag this doesn’t seem to be an issue with the immediate aftermath of the side impact test. I guess the junkyard fire wouldn’t be a good thing, but the battery pack would have probably been removed by then …. or maybe not.

  • avatar
    newfdawg

    The fact that the Volt ignited three weeks after a side impact test raises some questions NHTSA needs to answer. Did they remove the battery after the test? Had the fuel tank been drained? At this point I’m willing to give Gm the benefit of the doubt.

  • avatar

    The car had been sitting outside for three weeks after a crash test AND they didn’t follow GM’s recommended post-crash safety procedures. I’m not seeing much of a safety concern here, but the media firestorm may do some damage.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    From the Bloomberg article: (quoting Greg Martin of GM)

    “After the fire in June, GM and NHTSA both crashed a Volt and could not replicate the fire, Martin said. GM has safety protocols for handling the Volt and its battery after an accident. Had those been followed, there wouldn’t have been a fire, he said in a phone interview.”

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      Why was this left out of the TTAC article? Sounds like the NHTSA didn’t follow safety protocols for the car. What I think this brings up more than anything is the communication and application of protocols for cars with newer tech. Is there something special for the Leaf, new plug in Prius, regular Prius, other hybrids, and the Volt that needs to be done that the NHTSA and local responders need to know about and don’t?

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        I know when Ford introduced the Escape Hybrid they had a website of safety procedures for mechanics and first responders. Not sure how or if they went about informing first responders of its existence.

      • 0 avatar

        Steven, our esteemed ed Ed has nothing against the Volt and he’s not trying to hide anything. This was a blog post with a couple of brief excerpts and a link to the full article, where GM’s spokesperson was quoted per geozinger’s comment.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven02

        Ronnie, I am just simply stating that it should have been in the article as well. I know where the quote came from, I read all of the links before I posted. I am not alone in this believe when you read the other comments on here as well.

      • 0 avatar

        I have updated the story to include Martin’s quote, but we need to be clear that it doesn’t prove anything. We don’t know what procedures NHTSA used, we simply know that Greg Martin is convinced that this wouldn’t have happened had GM’s protocols been followed. Until NHTSA confirms what protocols were used post-crash, I don’t think this qualifies as “another side of the story.”

        I’ll be honest: the fact that we’ve had several Volt-related fires in the last year comes as a real surprise to me. There’s no doubt in my mind that GM tried to over-engineer its battery pack (it’s go the most sophisticated cooling system of any EV, for example), and yet we’ve had multiple fires already. Meanwhile, we’ve had Li-ion Prius Plugins running around the country for over a year, there are more than 8k Leafs Leafs on the road, not to mention the Teslas, BMW MINI E and ActiveE and on and on, and yet none of these other Li-ion cars have had a single reported fire.

        The story here is not “OMG Teh Volt Is A Hellacious Deathtrap That Will Kill You With Fire,” it’s simply “How Do These Fires Keep Happening?” It’s tough to prove what happened in each individual situation, and there’s always room for some plausible deniability case-by-case, but there’s also clearly a larger pattern here that shouldn’t be ignored.

      • 0 avatar

        Ed, the “larger pattern” may just be random, like supposed cancer clusters. Still, the involvement of EVs in general and the Volt in particular in three fires in the space of about 6 months is probably newsworthy. As an editor, it’d be irresponsible to not note those fires and as someone in the business of publishing, you’d be stupid to not highlight the Volt’s involvement, a high profile car if there ever was one, even if that involvement was only coincidental.

        Does it bother me that GM haters and EV haters have misrepresented how I’ve framed the story on my own site? Sure, but in the interest of generating traffic, I don’t think I would have done things much differently. Volt + Fire = Web Traffic. One doesn’t have to resort to fearmongering while still exploiting the issue from a publishing standpoint. I’m a little uncomfortable with the notion that I might have a role, by hyping this story, in the Volt getting slagged off, but I figure that as long as that I present the information in a balanced and judicious manner, there’s nothing wrong with an attraction getting headline.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven02

        @Ed
        I agree, the Volt related fires is troubling. So far, someone correct me if I am wrong, there have been 3 incidents.

        One in the garage with the other converted EV in which the investigator has said it wasn’t either car.

        One where the fire started near the charger, and they don’t think it was the charger, but still investigating. (this article references it)

        One where the fire started 3 weeks after a test crash and it is unknown what happened between the test crash and the fire. It hasn’t been replicated and GM says the NHTSA didn’t follow procedures after the crash.

        Is this a case of where there is smoke there is fire, or is this just bad luck for the Volt.

      • 0 avatar
        Herm

        ” Edward Niedermeyer says:

        I’ll be honest: the fact that we’ve had several Volt-related fires in the last year comes as a real surprise to me. There’s no doubt in my mind that GM tried to over-engineer its battery pack (it’s go the most sophisticated cooling system of any EV, for example), and yet we’ve had multiple fires already. ”

        Either Toyota or Nissan sent some corporate Ninjas over, to discredit the Volt. My guess it was Nissan, after successfully doing a job on Toyota. Follow the money.

  • avatar
    Steven02

    If you read the article about the fire in the home, it says the fire started near the charger and they don’t think that they charger was involved. Duke Energy is taking a precaution, but doesn’t think that the charger started the fire.

    The 2nd article about the fire with the NHTSA says that their wouldn’t have been a fire if the NHTSA had followed safety protocols with the vehicle.

    Not including this information makes this article fear mongering.

    • 0 avatar

      Steven,

      You can’t include everything in a post. This isn’t fear mongering. Fear mongering is what some web sites did when they picked up my article on Cars In Depth about the Mooresville, NC fire. Though my post specifically said that other electrical appliances might have been the cause of the fire, and that at this time Duke Energy was not attributing a cause, a number of sites said that the Volt caused the fire or that EVs are a safety hazard.

      Still, web site publishers and editors would be stupid to not post stories about the Volt and fires. Based on my Google Analytics stats, there are lots of people interested in burning EVs.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven02

        I have seen much long posts on TTAC. Including information from only one side about fires and NOT including the other side that says, we don’t think it was the charger, or the side that said if the NHTSA followed safety protocols with the Volt, that fire wouldn’t have happened is leading to a conclusion and playing to analytics that might want to see burning EV’s instead of the actual story.

        I am not saying don’t post stories about this. But TTAC usually tries to dig deep to provide more truth, sometimes more editorial. Take the Bertel’s post about Bloomberg’s bad math. He pointed out how wrong they were. Ed is leaving out important details about the fire’s only quoting parts that make this lean one way and ends it with Ruh-roh, implying that the Volt has fire problems, when actually, there is no evidence to suggest that it does.

    • 0 avatar

      Steven02, it’s a fine line between fearmongering and whitewashing. If you want to define that line, get your own blog and make your own editorial calls. Otherwise, while you are a guest at TTAC we ask that you please limit your comments to the topic at hand. Commentary on TTAC’s editorial policies should, as always, be directed to our contact form.

      Incidentally, here’s another factoid that didn’t make it into the piece: of the 8k Nissan Leafs on US roads, not a single fire has been documented. Surely there must be some sinister purpose in my leaving that detail out, no?

      • 0 avatar
        Steven02

        I agree, it can be a fine line between fear mongering and whitewashing. I am not trying to define that line. I am simply suggesting that leaving out relevant information from articles sounds like fear mongering when the implication is that this product catches fire.

        psarhjinian said it was scare mongering in his comment. Others have also suggested that it was poor form in their comments to leave out this information.

        I would prefer that the topics don’t have whitewashing or fear mongering. TTAC shouldn’t not become Brian Ross reporting either.

        I have no problem including the factoid about the Leaf not being involved with any fires. You can also state that the Volt was cleared in the earlier fire that happened, and doesn’t look to be at fault for these fires either.

  • avatar
    epsilonkore

    3 weeks after the crash it catches on fire? Surely emergency workers could remove the living occupants in that amount of time! It does sound like the battery/fuel was not disconnected/drained after the crash test, as ANY crashed car should be after being wrecked. It would be good to know how/why the NHTSA allowed for this story to get out in the first place. There is no need in circulating this issue and later submitting a “sorry we forgot to properly disable the vehicle after the test” apology (if thats what really happened). Wonder how much GM will have to spend on PR to save face?

    • 0 avatar

      I want to know why the NHTSA allowed for this story to get out in the first place,

      Oh, so you’d prefer that a government agency hide the truth? This is NHTSA, not the Pentagon. No national security concerns here.

      • 0 avatar
        LeMansteve

        Many of the posts above are citing some special, post-crash safety procedures that would have prevented the fire. I think it’s important to know if NHTSA followed those alleged procedures. Letting a biased portion of the facts flow publicly is not the same as telling the truth.

      • 0 avatar
        epsilonkore

        That is not what I am saying, Ronnie. I would prefer they be sure its not something THEY did first before allowing a story like that to go to press. I explained that pretty clearly in my comment. This is how things like the unintended acceleration debacle became blown out of control, far beyond actual facts. Test, test, test, then report the repeatable findings.

  • avatar
    kenzter

    Leaving out the part regarding safety protocols not being followed isn’t cool. Looks like someone is trying to backup his NYT op-ed.

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    The Partial Truth About Cars.

  • avatar
    WheelMcCoy

    “Ruh-Roh!”

    “And we would have gotten away with it if weren’t for you pesky TTAC readers!”

    Just kidding TTAC. I trust you aren’t mongering anything, just having a busy schedule that sometimes leaves cracks for details to slip through.

    But kudos to the readers for calling you out. It’s nice to see the “Best and Brightest” return after a trip to being the “Base and Belligerent” regarding the story of the Prius owner.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Technically it could’ve ignited on impact just as easily and there’s no reason to think anything physically changed in 3 weeks. A breaker system would be nice because of the high voltage. I know BMW has breaker system on regular 12 volt cars right on top of the battery. I’ve seen fire & rescue cut the positive cable on regular cars after moderate/major impact.

    • 0 avatar

      Technically it could’ve ignited on impact just as easily and there’s no reason to think anything physically changed in 3 weeks.

      Please explain just how this particular fire started and how “technically” it could have ignited the same way on impact. While you’re at it, you might also list your CV as it regards battery chemistry and battery conditioning systems engineering.

      The battery management and conditioning system on the Volt is easily the most over-engineered part of the car. GM’s done the equivalent of over 32 years of testing on the battery design.

      Random things do not happen randomly. By that I mean that if X number of people are likely to get cancer, there won’t be a uniform distribution throughout the country. There will be more cases in one place and fewer cases in another – regardless of environmental factors. The stats work out on the macro level, but a smaller scale they might look, to an untrained eye, like non-random events.

      Sometimes you roll 7 many times in a row. Sometimes Nissan Leafs aren’t involved in fires while a number of Chevy Volts are. While it piques our interest to the point of resolving the cause of the fires, and while it’s newsworthy, it still might just be statistical noise.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        Please explain just how this particular fire started and how “technically” it could have ignited the same way on impact.

        From the A123 Systems Safety Data Sheet:

        Lithium ion batteries contain flammable liquid electrolyte that may vent, ignite and produce sparks when subjected to high temperatures (> 150 °C (302 °F)), when damaged or abused (e.g., mechanical damage or electrical overcharge). Burning cells can ignite other batteries in close proximity.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven02

        @mcs

        GM didn’t go with A123. It went with LG. But, I am sure you are going to find the same type of documentation about all lithium ion batteries, including the Leaf and new plugin Prius.

      • 0 avatar
        GarbageMotorsCo.

        Yes, LG, based in Korea, instead of A123 based in Massachusetts.

        How very “Murican” of them!

  • avatar
    mac

    Ah, lithium batteries.

    Jeez, why on earth was the battery left installed in the car? I’d have wanted it out for a variety of reasons! One of the things that I would *really* want to check after a crash test would be the condition of the volatile battery, and regardless, leaving the battery installed in the car after a major crash is a HUGE no-no.

    This is like not even checking if the gas tank is leaking after a crash test, just shoving it into storage and then being surprised when the car sitting in a pool of gasoline catches fire.

    (Yes, I know gasoline doesn’t “just catch fire”, but neither do non-badly-abused lithium batteries)

  • avatar
    smokingclutch

    This is a pretty irresponsible post, IMO. And yes, I’ve read the comments by the author and the editor. Still irresponsible, and adds fuel to the fire (ahem) that The Truth About Cars is really The Vendetta Against GM.

    I used to enjoy this site but it’s gotten to the point where only the reviews and Jack Baruth are worth the time. :(

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    @Ronnie Schreiber

    First, what’s wrong with a redundant safety system especially if regular low voltage cars have them. There’s no reason to believe it was a molecular internal selfcontained malfunction of the battery as opposed to external arcing from the ‘modified’ chassis is there? If so, that’s a bigger problem and can’t be solved so easily. Either way, it’s a first year product and despite “over-engineering”, oversight does happen even on Mercedes or the space program.

    • 0 avatar

      Who said anything about redundant safety being wrong? I’m all for overengineering stuff, particularly safety tech, as long as it makes sense from a cost/benefit POV.

      As for what cause the NHTSA Volt to burn, we don’t know what it was. Frankly, rather than suspect battery chemistry itself, or external arcing, I think a logical suspect is the metal that penetrated the battery, or even more likely, some kind of problem related to the fact that the battery conditioning system was not functioning. I’m not a chemist, nor an engineer. GM and NHTSA do have plenty of engineers and I’m sure that we’ll eventually find out just what caused the crashed Volt to ignite.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        You’re right, we don’t know what exactly happened and we both could just as easily be wrong but it’s always a better idea to cut the power in cars following a major event, be that high or low voltage. Just ask fire & rescue. Don’t forget that even pure EVs can have fuel spilled underneath from the other car or cars involved in a crash and all it takes is a 12 volt spark from a tail light.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven02

        You still can’t turn off the battery though. If the battery is damaged, the fire could start at that point, it just might take awhile depending on how badly the battery is damaged. Do we know if the Volt doesn’t have a breaker that trips in the case of a accident? I don’t know either way. We could be wrong about that too.

      • 0 avatar
        Herm

        Leaf uses a pendulum switch to disconnect the battery, The Prius, Volt and Leaf all have a big fuse that disconnects the battery.. Emergency responders are supposed to pull it after a crash.

      • 0 avatar
        eldard

        Just avoid electric cars altogether to be safe. Saves money, too.

  • avatar
    eldard

    Italians!!!

  • avatar
    Rob Finfrock

    Wish I could say I was surprised, but this is what remedial engineering gets you.

    To those claiming the Volt is being unfairly maligned here, it’s worth pointing out there are far, far more Nissan Leafs on the road. Funny that I haven’t seen any stories about them going up in smoke…

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      Even more interesting, in all of the stories so far about the Volt, none have been attributed to the fault of the car.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        You bring up a good point however in an msnbc newsvine article, Volt engineers strongly recommend that the battery be drained of its charge and disposed of or preferably let them pull the battery after the accident (even if the battery isn’t directly damaged I guess) for futher lab research. Either way, they’re basically saying a fully discharged battery is harmless. I mean if it’s not leaking of course but more to the point, how would one discharge a battery that’s still in a damaged car without a ‘jumper’ connection if the battery automatically disconnected itself from the chassis during or shortly after major a event?

    • 0 avatar
      Rob Finfrock

      Have faith. I strongly believe that we’re just scratching the surface of how thoroughly GM screwed the pooch with this car.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    According to the National Fire Protection Association (there’s an association for everything, apparently), there are about 287,000 vehicle fires in the US per year. Three out of four of those vehicle fires are attributable to electronic or mechanical failures.

    http://www.nfpa.org/categoryList.asp?categoryID=1123&URL=Safety%20Information/For%20consumers/Vehicles

    If TTAC endeavors to cover all of those, then we’re going to be treated to about 786 fire posts per day. That could be interesting.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    Wonder where was the fire came from?
    was it from the battery casing got damaged, the juice /solution inside got mixed and after 3 weeks of brewing/ mixing the fire finally erupts!
    If it were a small impact it should not have short the both poles of the battery ? or it did slowly after 3 wks.
    So the prudent thing is to remove the battery and see if the case cracked.

  • avatar
    swedishiron

    and that is why VOLVO has been doing extensive crashing testing of their hybrid and Electric prototypes BEFORE putting them in production. I promise you Volvo has done way more extensive crash testing and Volvo stated they wanted to identify issues UNIQUE to hybrid and electric only drive trains including the routing of high amperage harnesses and location of large battery packs.

  • avatar
    swedishiron

    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xm9art_2012-volvo-c30-electric-safety_auto

    Volvo Electric Car Safety – how it should be done!

  • avatar
    shaker

    If the car was stored outside, it’s possible that rainwater came in contact with the chemistry of a leaking cell, which would spark a small fire; we need more information. And so does GM, because if the pack was punctured by part of the car’s structure, then the secondary function of that structure to protect the battery pack (as opposed to the primary function to protect the occupants) needs some rework.

  • avatar
    redav

    The nagging question I have is does GM really know that their decommissioning protocols were not followed, and specifically which steps were left out? If GM does know this, and they know that if those protocols were followed, then they have a very good starting point for identifying how the fire started.

    My gut tells me that the NHTSA performed standard post-crash procedures for a normal car, but not an EV.

  • avatar
    Steven02

    This link probably sums up everything.

    http://bottomline.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/11/11/8761004-federal-testers-may-have-caused-chevy-volt-fire-gm-says

    The wrecked vehicle was subsequently moved to what GM spokesman Rob Peterson called “the boneyard,” where it was left unattended, no action taken to deal with either the vehicle’s charged lithium-ion battery or the coolant fluid that had, in fact, leaked out after the crash test. The gas tank used to power Volt’s back-up gas engine was drained.
    Preliminary evidence indicates that over time the normally inert coolant came into contact with some of the LIon battery cells. In liquid form that would not be a problem, but it eventually “crystallized” as the Wisconsin weather turned cold at night, according to Peterson. That eventually led to the battery shorting out and catching fire, apparently, though a formal cause has not been announced by safety regulators.

    “NHTSA didn’t follow our protocol,” which would have required the agency to “de-energize the battery after the crash test,” Peterson said. But, Peterson quickly added that it appears NHTSA employees “didn’t know our protocol,” which was developed after GM conducted its own crash tests.

    So, it looks like the NHTSA didn’t do what they were supposed to do but didn’t know what they were supposed to do.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @Steven 02:“So, it looks like the NHTSA didn’t do what they were supposed to do but didn’t know what they were supposed to do.”

      I can’t imagine that GM had not finished their guidelines on how to handle a damaged Volt before the cars left the factory. This was done long before the cars were on the road.

      This incident seems like human error on the part of the testing facility more than a lack of instruction on what to do. I have to imagine that this facility has tested more than one BEV/hybrid/plug-in car by the time of the incident. They would be aware of any special circumstances regarding a BEV/Hybrid car.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India