Chevrolet Volt Not a Fire Waiting to Happen (Duh)

  Yesterday the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it was closing its investigation into the risk of fire in Chevrolet Volts.

 

Yesterday the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it was closing its investigation into the risk of fire in Chevrolet Volts. As NHTSA stated, “the agency’s investigation has concluded that no discernible defect trend exists and that the vehicle modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts.”

What isn’t entirely clear to the public at large, it seems, is that the fires related to the Volt didn’t occur like something out of a Lethal Weapon movie, with the car bursting into a huge ball of flame following an impact. Maybe that would happen if it was rammed by a fuel truck, but. . . .

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Rather, the problem was that six days after one crash test and three weeks after another test some coolant leaked out of the Volts’s reservoirs, and as their batteries hadn’t been fully discharged, electrical fires occurred.

To be sure, this wouldn’t be a good thing if the smashed Volt was in a person’s garage, but it isn’t like what happens if, say, gasoline happens to hit a hot exhaust manifold.

The vehicle modifications that GM developed as countermeasures include strengthening the structure around the battery, adding a sensor to monitor coolant levels, and installing a tamper-resistant bracket to the top of the battery coolant reservoir so it isn’t overfilled.

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The NHTSA statement also says, “NHTSA remains unaware of any real-world crashes that have resulted in a battery-related fire involving the Chevy Volt or any other electric vehicle.”

Certainly, it is a good thing that NHTSA looked into the matter. It exists for things like this.

But it is not a good thing that the Volt was painted with the fire brush. The designers, engineers and technicians who have brought that car into being undoubtedly did more work than would be the norm, knowing full well that it is an exceedingly significant vehicle vis-à-vis the company that signs their paychecks. Sure, there only 7,671 Volts sold in 2011 according to Autodata, but the potential for the technology is enormous.

A couple data points need to be considered.

(1) The Volt weighs 3,781 lb. Any object that can move at speed that weighs nearly two tons is dangerous no matter what it is powered by.

(2) “Conventional” cars are generally powered by gasoline. (The Volt has an internal combustion engine, too, but that was not the fire-related issue.) Gasoline isn’t some sort of benign, non-reactive fluid. In fact, as a chemistry wiki from the Imperial College of London puts it, “explosives like TNT actually have less potential energy than gasoline.”

Think about that next time you get behind the wheel.