Chevrolet will offer free loaner cars to any Volt owner who is concerned about the risk of battery fires. The move comes after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a formal investigation into the risk of fires in the battery packs in the Chevrolet Volt.
Despite the loaner-car program, General Motors executives say the Volt extended-range electric car is safe to drive — the company will not suspend sales of the Volt or issue a recall. The loan program, which will give Volt owners another GM car for the duration of the NHTSA investigation, is simply designed to give customers peace of mind.
“Make no mistake: I believe in the safety of the Volt. Chevrolet and GM believe in the safety of the Volt,” said GM North America president Mark Reuss. He noted that his daughter and grandchildren continue to travel in a Chevy Volt.
Although some customer-owned Volts have been involved in accidents on public roads, none have resulted in a reported fire. When a Volt is in a crash that causes the airbags to deploy, OnStar sends a notice to GM, and technicians fly to the location of the crashed vehicle within a day or two. Once there, technicians use a load cell to “depower” the car’s lithium-ion battery pack. Officials liken the depowering process to “hooking up a large light bulb,” which quickly discharges the battery pack.
GM has committed to working with NHTSA to determine the cause of the fires and developing a solution. (In fact, GM and NHTSA have already been working on the issue since the fire risk was first discovered in June.) Currently, the company and regulatory agency don’t know what caused the reported fires. In one case, a Chevrolet Volt caught fire three weeks after being subjected to a crash test in Wisconsin. In another instance, a Volt battery pack caught fire seven days after being subjected to a simulated crash in a lab setting. And in another instance, a battery pack emitted sparks and smoke a few hours after being subjected to a laboratory crash simulation.
In all three cases, the battery packs were not depowered after the accident. Mary Barra, GM senior vice president of global product development, says this is akin to leaving gasoline in the fuel tank of a damaged car. “In a severe crash, the most important thing is that you need to depower the battery,” she said. Moreover, Barra said the Volt is unlikely to catch fire for several days after an accident, giving technicians time to drain the battery safely.
GM will send a letter detailing the safety investigation to owners and dealers today. The company doesn’t plan to launch any advertising regarding the NHTSA investigation. In addition, GM will work with the Society of Automotive Engineers and other automakers to develop safety standards for dealing with electric-car batteries after crashes.
GM officials also denied that the Chevrolet Volt is responsible for garage fires. Although there have been several reports of garage fires while a Volt was charging, GM says that investigations have determined the electric car did not cause those fires.
“We at GM take enormous pride in the Volt and what it represents,” said Reuss. “The goal here is to satisfy the customer.”