The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will be opening a formal safety defect investigation to assess the risk of fire in Chevy Volts that have been involved in a serious crash. The agency became concerned after a Volt it crash-tested caught fire three weeks later.
NHTSA says it isn’t aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries, but the agency is concerned there is potential for post-crash fires because recent tests on the Volt’s batteries resulted in fires. NHTSA says its tests are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios.
NHTSA says that this past May, it performed a side-collision crash test on a Volt, damaging the battery and rupturing the coolant line. When a fire involving the test vehicle occurred more than three weeks after it was crashed, the agency concluded that the damage to the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery during the crash test led to the fire.
NHTSA says the fire incident spurred the agency to work with the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Defense (DOD) to research the potential for fire in crashed electric vehicles. The agency also worked with GM to complete "rigorous tests" of the Volt’s lithium-ion batteries.
In an effort to recreate the May test, NHTSA recently conducted three tests on the Volt’s lithium-ion battery packs that intentionally damaged the battery compartment and ruptured the vehicle’s coolant line. Following a test on Nov. 16 that did not result in a fire, a temporary increase in temperature was recorded in a test on Nov. 17. During the test conducted on Nov. 18 using similar protocols, the battery pack was rotated within hours after it was impacted and began to smoke and emit sparks shortly after rotation to 180 degrees, and NHTSA is continuing to analyze the incident.
On Nov. 24, the battery pack that was tested on Nov. 17 caught fire at the testing facility. The agency is currently working with DOE, DOD and GM to assess the cause and implications of the fire. In each of the battery tests conducted in the past two weeks, the Volt’s battery was impacted and rotated to simulate a real-world, side-impact collision into a narrow object such as a tree or a pole followed by a rollover.
No Recalls Yet
Though NHTSA says it’s too soon to tell whether the investigation will lead to a recall of any vehicles or parts, if the agency identifies an unreasonable risk to safety, it will take immediate action to notify consumers and ensure that GM communicates with current vehicle owners.
In the meantime, the agency says it’s continuing to work with all vehicle manufacturers to ensure they have appropriate post-crash protocols; asking automakers who currently have electric vehicles on the market or plan to introduce electric vehicles in the near future to provide guidance for discharging and handling their batteries along with any information they have for managing fire risks; and engaging the Department of Energy and the National Fire Protection Association to help inform the emergency response community of the potential for post-crash fires in electric vehicles.