A Chevrolet Volt that caught fire last May after a crash test has led government officials to consider requiring first-responders to drain electric vehicles' batteries after a crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Friday it had investigated a fire that occurred in Wisconsin this spring, after the Volt extended-range electric vehicle underwent a 20 m.p.h., side-impact test for its five-star crash safety rating. The crash punctured the Volt's lithium-ion battery pack, and after more than three weeks of sitting outside, the vehicle and several cars around it caught fire. No one was hurt.
General Motors believes the fire occurred because NHTSA did not drain the Volt's battery following the crash, a safety step the automaker has recommended for first-responders, GM spokesman Rob Peterson said. GM did not tell NHTSA of the safety practice, Peterson said.
Still, none of the other Volts NHTSA crash-tested caught fire, even though they still had charged batteries, according to an official with the agency who declined to be identified because of ongoing discussions with automakers.
"We don't want to make it sound like this one incident could be the general case," the official said. "We don't see the risk of electric vehicles as being any greater than that for a gasoline vehicle."
This is the only crashed Volt ever to catch fire, GM spokesman Greg Martin said.
NHTSA plans more testing of the Volt's battery.
No Nissan Leaf pure electric vehicles have caught fire, Nissan spokeswoman Katherine Zachary said.
Both NHTSA and GM continue to insist the Volt is at least as safe as gasoline-powered vehicles. After all, Martin said, more than 200,000 car fires occurred in the U.S. last year.
Still, the Volt fire's cause the battery puncture led regulators to think about whether all electric vehicle batteries should be discharged following major crashes, the NHTSA official said. In addition, the agency is seeking the best process for accident responders to follow in electric vehicle accidents.
NHTSA is now reviewing automakers' responses. The official said it is too early to tell whether the agency will issue a rule on discharging batteries.
If one of the about 5,300 Volt owners crashes, GM currently sends a team to drain the battery. The automaker hopes to make a battery-draining tool more widely available next year, such as at dealerships, Peterson said.
Volts have been involved in three fires, including the NHTSA incident: One occurred in April in Connecticut where a Volt was parked next to a homemade electric vehicle. News reports said fire marshals handed the matter to GM, which said the Volt was not the cause.
Last week, a Volt was involved in a North Carolina garage fire. Fire officials continue to investigate whether the car, other appliances or something else caused the blaze, according to local news reports.
Written by Detroit Free Press