The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. confirms it has begun working with auto makers using lithium-ion batteries in their electric vehicles to develop after-crash safety procedures.
However, the government group says such vehicles pose no greater risk than traditional automobiles.
“NHTSA does not believe electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than other vehicles,” the agency says in statement obtained by WardsAuto. “It is common sense that the different designs of electric vehicles will require different safety standards and precautions.”
The Obama Admin. wants auto makers to put 1 million electrified vehicles on the road by 2015.
NHTSA’s action comes after a Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle caught fire at one of the agency’s testing centers in Wisconsin three weeks after a crash test there, as first reported by Bloomberg.
The one-of-a-kind car, launched late last year by GM and a “halo vehicle” for the auto maker as it refashions its image after a 2009 bankruptcy, also burned vehicles parked next to it.
The Wisconsin incident comes on the heels of a home fire in North Carolina on Oct. 30, where a Volt and a number of other electrical appliances were plugged in when the garage burst into flames. The local fire marshal could not be reached for an update on the investigation.
A fire also occurred earlier this year in a garage in Connecticut, where a Chevy Volt was parked alongside the owner’s homemade EV. Fire investigators never determined a cause.
The Volt fire at the NHTSA Wisconsin facility occurred in June. NHTSA started looking into post-crash protocols for vehicles using Li-ion batteries about the same time, and that’s when GM began its program with first responders.
Chevrolet and OnStar, the GM telematics unit that helped develop the Volt and continues to pull performance information from vehicles sold, are working with the International Association of Fire Fighters and International Association of Fire Chiefs on how to handle the Volt and its battery in a crash.
“This is a natural extension of the collaborative efforts we’ve had in the past when introducing new safety and other leading technologies,” Carmen Benavides, director of safety at Chevrolet, says in a statement announcing the program.
The training includes animation and illustrations of the Volt, highlighting locations of high-strength steel, cut points for extrication, first-responder labeling and automatic and manual electrical shut-off among other items, the auto maker says.
Li-ion battery technology has been a key enabler for the new generation of hybrid and all-electric vehicles. The batteries are lighter than their nickel-metal-hydride predecessors, more easily configurable for automotive applications and hold their charges longer.
However, overheating was an issue in their early development, and great lengths were taken by GM while engineering the Volt to keep its 16-kWh Li-ion battery at a steady temperature while charging and on the road.
GM says in a statement today it considers the Volt “a safe car” and that it is cooperating with NHTSA.
“NHTSA has stated that based on available data there’s no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gasoline-powered car,” says Jim Federico, chief engineer for EVs at GM. “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.”
All auto makers are migrating to Li-ion technology as they strive to meet growing consumer demand for EVs and tough new federal fuel-economy regulations necessitating their production.
Mike O’Brien, vice president-corporate and product planning for Hyundai Motor America, considers the robustness of Li-ion technology unquestioned. “A very durable material,” he says of the technology Hyundai uses in its Sonata hybrid.
O’Brien says minimizing the potential for internal electrical shorts is the key to preventing fires, suggesting any potential fault could lay with the larger battery system and not the battery itself.
NHTSA says it determined damage to the Volt’s Li-ion battery during the crash test led to the fire. The agency notes it is the only incident of its kind, “despite a number of other rigorous crash tests of the Chevy Volt separately conducted by both NHTSA and General Motors.”
NHTSA says in the coming weeks it will conduct additional testing of the Volt’s Li-ion battery and will continue to monitor electrified automobiles using the technology, “as the agency does with all vehicles on our nation’s roadways.”
– with Christie Schweinsberg