In news that will fan the flames of electric-car detractors, Bloomberg reports that a Chevrolet Volt caught fire three weeks after being crash tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Volt had been used for side-impact testing, and reportedly caught fire three weeks after the test.
NHTSA doesn’t have an explanation for the fire, but says that it started in the battery pack and was severe enough to damage vehicles parked near the Volt. It is possible that the crash test damaged something in the battery pack. As a result, the regulatory agency plans to investigate the fire safety of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. NHTSA reportedly will investigate a case where a Volt caught fire while charging in a garage in North Carolina.
“Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles,” NHTSA officials told Bloomberg in a statement.
Chevrolet released a statement from Jim Federico, General Motors chief engineer for electric vehicles. "The Volt is a safe car," Federico said. "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 gasoline-powered car... We have safety protocols to depower the battery of an electric vehicle after a significant crash."
In a June 2010 press release, Chevrolet explained that the batteries used in the Volt had been put through the equivalent of one million miles of testing, lasting about four million hours. The company tested the batteries for safety in water, crush accidents, short circuit conditions, and more. The batteries are covered by an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty.
Nissan spokeswoman Katherine Zachary said she wasn’t aware of an investigation into the Leaf by NHTSA. She noted that Nissan has sold about 8000 examples of the Leaf in the U.S. so far, and there haven’t been any reported fires. Like the Volt, the Leaf’s battery pack also carries an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty.
Sources: Bloomberg, Nissan, Chevrolet