About Those Chevy Volt Safety Protocols…

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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…

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • SVT48 SVT48 on Nov 18, 2011

    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?

    • Psarhjinian Psarhjinian on Nov 18, 2011

      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.

  • SVT48 SVT48 on Nov 18, 2011

    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.

  • 3-On-The-Tree Lou_BCsame here I grew up on 2-stroke dirt bikes had a 1985 Yamaha IT200 2-strokes then a 1977 Suzuki GT750 2-stroke 750 streetike fast forward to 2002 as a young flight school Lieutenant I bought a 2002 suzuki Hayabusa 1300 up in Huntsville Alabama. Still have that bike.
  • Milton Rented one for about a month. Very solid EV. Not as fun as my Polestar, but for a go to family car, solid. Practical EV ownership is only made possible with a home charger.
  • J Love mine, but the steering wheel blocks dashboard a bit, can't see turn signals nor headlights icons. They could use the upper corners of the screen for the turn signals. Mileage is much lower than shown too, disappointing
  • Aja8888 NO!
  • OrpheusSail I once did. My first four cars were American made, and through an odd set of circumstances surrounding a divorce, I wound up with a '95 Nissan Maxima which was fourteen years old and had about 150,000 miles on it.It was drove better, had an amazing engine, and was more reliable than any of my American cars. This included a new '95 GMC pickup that went through five alternators in under two years while the dealership insisted that there was no underlying electrical problem while they tried to run the clock on the warranty.That was the end of 'buy American'. I've bought from Honda and VW since, and I'll consider just about anything except American now.