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GM promotes new safety standards following Chevy Volt fire

Consumer Reports News: November 15, 2011 03:23 PM

In response to a June fire that consumed a crash-tested Chevrolet Volt, General Motors is publicizing its plans to propagate new standards for handling damaged electric cars.

Following a decade’s effort by GM, Toyota, and others to train first-responders to safely pry open and move hybrids at accident scenes, GM is now beginning to train the second line of cleanup workers--tow truck drivers, body shops, and salvage yards--in hybrid safety.

While first-responders mainly need to ensure the car’s high-voltage electrical system is disconnected, this second group of workers needs to safely “de-energize” the car--that is, removing all the fuel from the gas tank and draining any remaining charge in the battery.

After the crash-tested Volt fire came to light last week, GM revealed that it had been sending “SWAT” teams to Volt crash sites to recover the cars themselves and do this work. GM spokesman Rob Peterson says the company has a single, giant machine that drains the battery of its charge. Discharged batteries are less prone to catching fire than those humming with free electrons. Now, the company is stepping up its efforts to train others to do this work.

The Volt that caught fire had been crashed at 20 mph into a pole, striking it with the side of the car. The pole hit the battery pack under the rear seat and breeched coolant lines inside the battery pack. As part of the pole test, the car was then put on a rotisserie and rolled 90 degrees at a time, every five minutes to simulate a rollover accident. This caused the coolant to leak out and permeate other parts of the battery pack. After that test was completed, the car was parked outside in the weather with other crash-tested cars. Three weeks later the fire spontaneously erupted. GM says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which conducted the test, did not drain the electricity from the battery after the test.

A North Carolina fire marshal, meanwhile, has released a preliminary statement regarding a conflagration that consumed the garage of a house where another Volt was charging. In an interview with John Voelcker at, Iredell County chief deputy fire marshal Garland Cloer said "the source of ignition seems to be from outside the area of the vehicles." Fire investigators are still looking at other possible sources in the garage, including the Volt’s charger. And a county advisory against using electric-car chargers following the fire remains in effect.

While the news reports of fires have been alarming, thus far, hybrids and electric vehicles have proven to be relatively safe. Close attention by manufacturers and government agencies will further ensure EVs provide safe transportation.

Owners can reduce risks by having a professional electrician inspect, and modify if necessary, the electricity meant to feed a charge location. And, of course, having a pro install the charge station.

Chevrolet Volt fires raise safety concerns

Eric Evarts

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