Chevy Volt Catches Fire After Crash Test, Investigation Under Way

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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, [s]shortly[/s] 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.


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.

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3 of 63 comments
  • Redav Redav on Nov 14, 2011

    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.

  • Steven02 Steven02 on Nov 14, 2011

    This link probably sums up everything. 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.

    • Geozinger Geozinger on Nov 14, 2011

      @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.

  • SCE to AUX I charge at home 99% of the time, on a Level 2 charger I installed myself in 2012 for my Leaf. My house is 1967, 150-Amp service, gas dryer and furnace; everything else is electric with no problems. I switched from gas HW to electric HW last year, when my 18-year-old tank finally failed.I charge at a for-pay station maybe a couple times a year.I don't travel more than an hour each way in my Ioniq 1 EV, so I don't deal much with public chargers. Despite a big electric rate increase this year, my car remains ridiculously cheap to operate.
  • ToolGuy 38:25 to 45:40 -- Let's all wait around for the stupid ugly helicopter. 😉The wheels and tires are cool, as in a) carbon fiber is a structural element not decoration and b) they have some sidewall.Also like the automatic fuel adjustment (gasoline vs. ethanol).(Anyone know why it's more powerful on E85? Huh? Huh?)
  • Ja-GTI So, seems like you have to own a house before you can own a BEV.
  • Kwik_Shift Good thing for fossil fuels to keep the EVs going.
  • Carlson Fan Meh, never cared for this car because I was never a big fan of the Gen 1 Camaro. The Gen 1 Firebird looked better inside and out and you could get it with the 400.The Gen 2 for my eyes was peak Camaro as far as styling w/those sexy split bumpers! They should have modeled the 6th Gen after that.