Investigations have been launched following two recent reports of fires involving the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. One report, involving a Volt that had been crash-tested by the government, centered on the car’s lithium-ion traction batteries. The other incident was a North Carolina garage fire in which a Volt was reportedly being charged. The cause of the latter fire is still under investigation.
The reports call into question the safety of the lithium batteries used in all the latest plug-in electric cars. The same type of batteries caused several fires in laptop computers from Apple and Dell in 2006.
The reports raise the point that lithium batteries are still a fairly new technology and we may not understand all the safety implications. Compared with gasoline stored in a metal or plastic tank, however, lithium batteries seem pretty safe.
For some perspective, we called Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety and a protégé of Ralph Nader. He said, “A fuel fire is worse than an electrical fire, because you always have instantaneous combustion. The likelihood of being burned or injured is much worse. An electrical fire is not a good thing, but at least it gives the occupants some time to get out.”
Indeed, the Volt that was crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration burst into flames in June, three weeks after it had been crash tested. It was sitting out in the weather with other smashed cars and the battery had not been removed.
General Motors spokesman Rob Peterson says the company has a procedure for removing and de-energizing Volt batteries in real-world crashes. (A GM SWAT team, alerted by OnStar when air bags deploy, currently responds to all Volt crashes where the battery may be damaged.) But that didn’t happen after the NHTSA crash test. In a public statement, GM says:
“NHTSA has stated that based on available data, there’s no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gasoline-powered car.
“Safety protocols for electric vehicles are clearly an industry concern. At GM, we have safety protocols to depower the battery of an electric vehicle after a significant crash.
“We are working with other vehicle manufacturers, first responders, tow truck operators, and salvage associations with the goal of implementing industry-wide protocols.”
Those are the protocols used by its SWAT team, Peterson says.
As for chargers, such as the one allegedly involved in the North Carolina house fire, all must be certified by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory, before they can be sold in the United States. All automakers have services for consumers who buy electric-car chargers to ensure it is installed by a licensed professional electrician. It is unknown whether that procedure was followed at the scene of the North Carolina fire.
As with any new technology, indeed any safety concern, it is imperative to follow all manufacturer-recommended safety precautions. The public has had more than 100 years to adapt to the safety requirements of gasoline, an inherently dangerous fuel. Now the challenge is to develop the same awareness for electrified and electric cars.