National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator David Strickland and General Motors CEO Dan Akerson testified to a House subcommittee today on the safety of the Chevrolet Volt. Although an investigation by NHTSA found that the Volt posed no more risk of fire than non-electric cars, several members of Congress questioned the actions of both GM and NHTSA.
According to Automotive News, a report released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee before today's hearing cited an "unnatural relationship" between President Obama, and American automakers that received bailout money to avoid bankruptcies. GM received bailout money from the federal government, and the government also provided a $7500 tax credit for customers who purchase an electrified vehicle, like the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i, and -- of course -- the Chevrolet Volt. "This relationship raises serious questions about whether or not the administration is too heavily invested in the success of GM to be an effective regulator," the report alleges.
GM, for its part, has said that the Volt indirectly became "a surrogate" for political commentary on both electric vehicles and the Obama administration's business practices.
"I welcome the opportunity to testify today and stand behind a car that all of us at General Motors are proud of," GM CEO Akerson said at today's hearing. "We engineered the [Chevrolet Volt] to show the world what great vehicles we sell at General Motors. We did not engineer the Volt to become a political punching bag."
The hearing was lead by Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who pressed Strickland and Akerson on whether GM had adequately communicated the safety procedures necessary for handling crashed Chevrolet Volts. He also cited several emails between White House officials and GM giving the automaker instructions on how to structure press releases and other reports about the bankruptcy and subsequent bailouts.
"The government has been involved in this company far deeper than it ever should have been," echoed Representative Mike Kelly (R-Pennsylvania). "General Motors does not need the help of the taxpayers to move their cars."
Representative Darrell Issa (R-California) also accused GM and NHTSA of colluding to hide the Volt fire investigation for six months. Even though the first fire occurred in May, GM didn't publicly discuss the event until fall 2011.
"You didn't even inform and deal with the [battery fire] problem either to the public or to General Motors," Issa asked Strickland. "Can we trust you in this and every other area not to be selective and overly cautious?"
"NHTSA is not in the reputation business, we're in the safety business," countered NHTSA administrator Strickland. "It took every moment… to come to the decision on whether or not the Volt posed an unreasonable risk to safety."
Akerson further explained that GM didn't make the news of Volt battery fires public for several months because the company was still investigating whether such a risk existed. He said engineers worked tirelessly to determine what had caused a Chevrolet Volt crashed by NHTSA in May 2011 to catch fire.
"Did we think there was an imminent safety risk? No," Akerson said. "As [summer 2011] progressed, we had to disassemble the battery itself and look for the root cause… It wasn't all that clear to anyone what happened."
Akerson also reiterated that, once it was determined there was a battery fire concern, GM did everything in its power to protect consumers.
"We contacted every Volt owner and offered them a loaner car until the problem was settled. And if that wasn't enough, we offered to buy the car back from them," he said.
To further bolster his arguments, Akerson noted that decisions to develop the Chevrolet Volt and its battery systems were taken long before the federal government provided GM with bailout money. He said the Volt project was approved in summer 2008, and that lithium-ion battery development was already underway at that time.
"The [Obama] administration has never had a presence in the boardroom or any input on the operation of the business," he said.
Responding to questions from Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Akerson continued to say he believes the Volt is a safe vehicle. Akerson said the circumstances that caused a fire in the NHTSA test were extremely unusual, and that GM has not received any reports of deaths or injuries in customer-owned Volts.
"We had 285,000 hours of testing on this battery, which is the equivalent of 25 car-lives," Akerson said. "And everything we found was that this was safe."
Both Strickland and Akerson denied that they had worked to hide any vehicle safety risks from the public. Both executives said that it took weeks and even months for the two agencies to determine the cause of the first Volt fire, and even then it took more time to replicate the issue and determine the root cause of the fire. Over the next few weeks, GM will implement reinforcements to the Volt's battery pack both on the assembly line and in cars already sold to customers.
Sources: Automotive News, House Subcommittee Hearing