GM is close to having a fix for the Volt battery that had a tendency to go up in flames after a crash. Meanwhile in Washington, senators are getting the grill ready. (Read More…)
With NHTSA opening a formal defect investigation into the Chevy Volt, GM is moving to defend its rolling lightning rod (no pun intended) and allay consumer fears about its safety. Yesterday I briefly appeared on Fox Business’s Your World With Neil Cavuto show to talk about what the intro to my segment referred to as “the hybrid from hell” and the “killer in your garage.” I tried to explain that the danger to consumers was basically nil, and that the real concern is for rescue, towing and salvage workers. And I would have explained why NHTSA’s tests still leave some serious questions open, but my “fair and balanced” approach meant that my segment ended up being extremely short. So let’s take the opportunity now to look past the hysteria and pinpoint the real issues with NHTSA’s investigation into the Volt.
NHTSA has has opened a formal defect investigation into the Chevrolet Volt, on the grounds that
Intrusion in a crash may damage the battery, which may result in a substantial thermal reaction and fire
We knew that NHTSA was already looking in to this type of defect after an earlier test incident, but the official investigation resume [PDF] lists three separate thermal events that have occurred as a result of NHTSA tests. Hit the jump for the official explanation of this sequence of events.
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.
Over the last few days we’ve been discussing the implications of the growing gap between global oil demand and production, looking at the responses of a global automaker, a radical startup and the oil industry itself. And make no mistake, it’s an uncertain future out there… unless you’re selling cars in the US. In that case, your future just arrived, planned all the way through 2025. That is, if you think this proposed rule will survive four presidential elections and one industry-government “mid-term review.” Want to familiarize yourself with this pre-planned fuel economy future? All 893 pages await your perusal, in PDF format here. Or, hit the jump for a few broad strokes.
Remember the uproar over Unintended Acceleration in Toyotas? After more than a year of investigation, NHTSA has yet to find a definitive cause for the furor… although the experience was not an entire waste. In fact, the most interesting result of the entire situation was that it cast light on NHTSA’s inefficacy as much as it did embarrass Toyota’s quality control. And to help clarify what exactly the lessons of the Toyota flap were, the DOT’s Inspector General has released a report detailing its criticisms of the federal safety regulators. According to the report [PDF], NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation (ODI) has not
- Adequately tracked or documented pre-investigation activities.
- Established a systematic process for determining when to involve third-party or Vehicle Research and Test Center (VRTC) assistance
- Followed timeliness goals for completing investigations or fully implemented its redaction policy to ensure consumers’ privacy. [Ed: gee, you think?]
- Established a complete and transparent record system with documented support for decisions that significantly affect its investigations.
- Developed a formal training program to ensure staff has the necessary skills and expertise.
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.
The Crusade against distracted driving is taking its toll – on the telcos: “State laws that mandate use of hands-free devices when talking on a mobile phone behind the wheel may have cut handheld device usage in half over the past year,” reports Edmunds.
Transportation Secretary and Supreme Allied Commander in the War On Distraction Ray LaHood is quite chuffed about initial pilot program results for his latest offensive against in-car cell phone use, and he’s taking to the airwaves to declare victory. The programs, modeled on the “Click It Or Ticket” and “Over The Limit, Under Arrest” initiatives combined an advertising blitz and waves of enforcement to crack down on the behavior, but more importantly to send the message that distracted driving is as serious a problem as drunk driving or not wearing a seatbelt. Thanks to the relative success of these earlier programs, the DOT has a strong template for its pilot anti-distracted driving campaign, the enforcement components of which took place in April, July, and October 2010 and March-April 2011. But was the “Phone In One Hand, Ticket In The Other” program actually as successful as LaHood claims?
“ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross and the ABC News Investigative Team have been awarded the 2011 National Edward R. Murrow Award for “Video Continuing Coverage” for their exclusive investigation that revealed how Toyota had for years ignored complaints from hundreds of its owners about cars suddenly accelerating out of control.” (Read More…)
At today’s annual stockholders meeting in Toyota City, Toyota wrapped up most of the SUA and recall troubles that had plagued the company last year. Says The Nikkei [sub]: “When asked about the fallout from the recall of millions of vehicles over the past couple of years amid quality concerns, executive vice president Shinichi Sasaki thanked the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for clearing Toyota of some of the most serious allegations about defects in its vehicles.“
However, there is one man Toyota still holds a grudge against: (Read More…)
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland warned automakers last week that he had no interest in making it easier to use systems like Twitter and Facebook, indicating that integration of these systems could face future regulation. But while Strickland was playing Bad Cop, his boss (and the traditional bad cop in these routines) Ray LaHood was busy playing Good Cop, telling the AP [via The WaPo] that
We are data-based. Our credibility comes from having good data. If we have good data, then we can make a case. Is messing with your GPS a cognitive distraction? Is changing the channel on the radio a cognitive distraction? We’re looking at that now.
You can see the entire war plan for the DOT’s assault on distraction in PDF here, but don’t rush. You have plenty of time. Voluntary guidelines (yes, voluntary) for visual-manual interfaces won’t come out until Q3 of this year, portable devices in Q3 2013 and voice-activated systems in Q1 2014. Meanwhile, the government won’t even have the data on which to regulate hands-free systems until Q1 2012. So, even though most research shows little change in distraction between a hands-free and handheld device, the industry should be able to sell a grip of hands-free and voice-activated systems before the government is even sure of how distracting they are.
Speaking from Shanghai, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland tells Bloomberg that “a number” of Chinese automakers have expressed interest in selling their products in the US, to which the auto safety regulator says:
When they offer their vehicle for sale, we will treat them like we will treat any company whether it is a Detroit company or a Japanese company or a Chinese company.
Strickland identified GM’s partner SAIC as one company that was interested in US sales, although the automaker says it’s waiting until it has “more suitable product” for the market. Chinese auto exports currently make up only 3 percent of production, a number the Chinese government wants to increase to 20 percent by 2012-2015. Separately, SAIC announced this week that it plans to invest some $1.85b into its hybrid, electric and fuel-cell technologies.
Members of the media and the legal profession who receive regular updates from the U.S. Department of Transportation were in for a shock this morning as they opened the last announcement from NHTSA. ZoneAlarm by Check Point Software, which claims market leadership in the firewall and security business, warns that a DOT press release is a “possible fraud attempt.” (Read More…)
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano today took the unusual step of publicly voicing the Japanese government’s satisfaction with the U.S. government’s findings that Toyota’s electronic throttle control system is free of glitches, ghosts and malfunctions. It was a not so subtle reminder that politics weighed heavily in Toyota’s SUA scandal. (Read More…)