Third Fire Consumes A Chevy Volt Electric Car: Perspective

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2011 Chevrolet Volt destroyed in Barkhamsted, CT, garage fire; image from WTNH News 8 report

2011 Chevrolet Volt destroyed in Barkhamsted, CT, garage fire; image from WTNH News 8 report

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Brace yourselves, electric-car advocates, for another possible round of alarmism and superficial reporting about fires in plug-in cars.

A Bloomberg story today highlights a third fire involving a Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car--only 7,500 or so of which are on the roads today.

NHTSA side-impact test

The latest case occurred in June in a Chevy Volt that had been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The car was subjected to a side-impact "pole test," which not only destroyed the car but cracked the battery pack housed in the center tunnel and under the rear seat.

Then, as per the standard test procedure, the car was put on a rotisserie and rotated 90 degrees every five minutes to test for any fluid leakage. Coolant leaked out of the battery pack, though the electric components stayed put.

Fully three weeks later, the wrecked Volt caught fire in an open storage yard in Wisconsin, with the flames ultimately spreading to surrounding cars.

2011 Chevrolet Volt during IIHS crash testing

2011 Chevrolet Volt during IIHS crash testing

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After news of the fire, both Chevrolet and the NHTSA independently replicated the crash test and subsequent vehicle rotation procedure. In neither case could they reproduce the conditions under which the battery pack ignited.

Electric vehicles not "at greater risk" of fire

Months later, the NHTSA doesn't appear to view the fire as terribly alarming. It has given the Volt a five-star safety rating, and the IIHS designated the Volt a Top Safety Pick as well.

“Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles," the agency said in a statement today. "In fact, all vehicles -- both electric and gasoline-powered -- have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash.”

Nonetheless, novelty and lack of public knowledge is likely to make any conflagration noteworthy if there's an electric car nearby.

Salvage yards, tow-truck operators

The immediate concern, the agency noted, was to ensure that first responders, tow-truck operators, salvage yards, and even dealerships that handle wrecked electric cars understand what must be done to ensure safety.

Car accident

Car accident

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GM has been training first responders how to approach crashes involving electric cars for more than a year, since before the 2011 Volt went on sale last December.

It is also developing procedures for all parties on how to remove lithium-ion battery packs from wrecked Volts to alleviate any potential of long-term fire risk.

Garage fires, with Volts inside

The two previous fires with Chevy Volts involved were in Mooresville, North Carolina, just last week, and in Barkhamsted, Connecticut, last April. Both occurred in garages that happened to house Chevrolet Volts.

2011 Chevrolet Volt charging port

2011 Chevrolet Volt charging port

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In the Mooresville case, a Volt was charging in the garage at the time of the fire--leading local electric utility Duke Energy, in a surfeit of caution, to advise electric-car owners not to plug in their cars to charge until the cause of the blaze had been established.

No conclusion has yet been drawn by local fire officials, but GM sources--none of whom would go on record--seem confident that the Volt will not be deemed to have been a cause of the blaze.

As for the Connecticut blaze, the fire marshal's report concluded the Volt that was parked in the garage had nothing to do with the cause of the fire. It was sitting next to a Suzuki converted by the home's owner to a battery electric vehicle.

Keeping an eye out

With electric cars slowing spreading into the market, manufacturers and regulators alike will be keeping a very close eye on any fires with electric cars nearby.

The NHTSA's statement concludes, “As manufacturers continue to develop vehicles of any kind -- electric, gasoline, or diesel -- it is critical that they take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of drivers and first responders both during and after a crash."

Given that there are 250,000 or more fires in gasoline vehicles every year, the sample base seems too low to draw any useful conclusions about electric cars and fires thus far.

For everyone's sake, let's hope it stays that way.


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Comments (9)
  1. It looks like GM is going to get a taste of what Toyota went through and have to recall all of the Volts before they even come to full market. It is a little bit strange that there hasn't been any fires with the Leaf. I wonder what GM did wrong???

  2. @James: And GM would have to recall Volts based on ... what, exactly? I'm not quite following your line of reasoning here.

  3. The worst case of poor reportage in my lifetime was the Chevy Corvair, which braindead Ralph Nadar (who never drove a car in his life) declared a rollover waiting to happen. Nadar's data was later found to be what everyone knew it would be - faulty. By then GM , a company no one would accuse of having guts, then or now, had cancelled the vehicle, a car for whose engine - an opposed 6 - they bought out an entire German company. GM never used that engine in any other vehicle. Oddly enough, the VW Beetle, which WOULD roll over in an instant - it had a very high center of gravity and a narrow wheelbase - Nadar never warned about. Nor about the Beetle's extreme number of engine fires (my mother had three). Nadar hated GM. Nadar lied. A lot.

  4. What a bunch of BS, Ramon. The design came from VW and Porsche, did I miss those companies going out of business? The actual design was 100% owned by GM and GM did not pay either company a penny, as has been documented well. If you want to just do your usual making things up here again, at least provide a fictitious name of the German company that was bought out.
    In addition, it wasn't even an opposed 6 design as you ignorantly claimed, it was famous as a flat 6 (now generally called a boxer engine). But again, love your imagination.
    And finally, Ralph Nadar... If you want to attack someone and use his name four times, feel free to actually spell it correctly at least once... NadEr.
    But at least you're consistent...

  5. agree that "breathless" coverage is often driven by agendas. here, seems valid vis a vis refuting those with agendas "against" ev's. but, good for those who are frustrated in this case with agenda driven coverage to keep that in mind with other stories on other topics that create "breathless" coverage from "news" outlets with more "progressive" agendas.

  6. @Matt: Fair point. We hope GreenCarReports does that too. Given criticism from some of our readers over articles like these:
    and of couse the notorious
    I like to think that we're succeeding if we get criticized from all sides of the spectrum!

  7. none of these stories should be published without stats on car fires in general. several thousand burn every day

  8. Fires happen so often that they rarely get reported on the news, and if it does make the news it's rare that they would mention the cars in the garage. This is just charging stupidity, since few people have a plug-in car some will just jump to conclusion and assume it was the car. I highly doubt that the Volt was the cause, but the sad part is few news stations will report the truth after the tru cause is revealed.

  9. I thought the most interesting fact in the article was the 250,000 vehicle fires per year. That is a startlingly large number. Looking around on the web, I see this number is substantially down from 470,000 fires/year in 1980.

    According to the report, 20% of all fires are vehicle fires.

    Interestingly, many of the fire related vehicle deaths occur when a vehicle is involved in a survivable collision but then catches fire and kills the occupants. I wonder if EVs will fair any better or worse than gasoline vehicles in that regard.

    Gasoline is a liquid and can leak out easily. On the other hand, a damaged battery pack can heat up and cause a fire.

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