Volt: The Heat Is On

Fortunately for Government Motors, fires in the Chevy Volt haven’t killed anyone.

As a result GM, its White House cheerleaders, and the entire Green electric vehicle (EV) industry have been spared the loud spectacle of Rep. Henry Waxman calling tort show trials to help his lawyer allies feed on the carcass of battery manufacturers.

When Toyota vehicles were suspected of “sudden acceleration” in dozens of life-claiming crashes, the Washington Inquisition went into full swing with lawyers salivating over a potential new class of lawsuits resulting from new electronic throttle technology. The media howled. Consumer groups screamed. Pols hyperventilated. Transportation chief Ray Lahood declared Toyotas unsafe at an speed. Dollar signs danced like sugar plums across lawyer eyeballs. Alas, it was all a sham. Electronics were found innocent by federal investigations. Errant floor mats (and human error) were fingered. The company replaced the mats and sanity was restored.

Now, Chevy Volts are being investigated by NHTSA after crashed Volts erupted into flames weeks after they were impacted. The engineers will find the problem and it will be fixed.

But the reputation of Washington’s preferred green vehicles may not be repaired so easily.

Like CFL bulbs and their encyclopedic-rules-of-HAZMAT-mercury-disposal-if-broken, electric vehicles (also known as coal-powered cars) have been oversold by their advocates as fairy-tale creatures come to save the planet. All technologies have their issues, beginning with the myth that lithium batteries bring energy independence (in fact the world’s largest lithium deposits are abroad, in unfriendly places like Bolivia).

In the short term, GM faces a PR challenge of convincing consumers — already leery of the operation of hybrid plug-in technology (do I need to charge it and gas it?) — that batteries don’t explode upon impact. They don’t.

But “GM needs people to get past the headlines,” says Edmund’s auto analyst Bill Visnic who notes that fires have not afflicted other EVs. “Their competitors don’t want this to blow up either.”

But the fires do expose the larger issues of carrying around massive, 16 kWh lithium batteries (a laptop battery is just 150 watts by comparison) in your car feeding high voltage cables to electric motors. While automakers prefer lithium for its higher energy content, says Visnic, that benefit comes with the danger of combustion when exposed to water as well as the danger of so-called “thermal runaway.”

That term will be familiar to the laptop industry which struggled through its own lithium-fire scares before better cooling systems were developed. The water-cooled systems do not appear to be an issue with the Volt fires. GM’s initial analysis points to a non-lithium source since the battery cells weren’t breeched.

Still, the Volt episode reveals the issue of a “depowering protocol.” Never heard of that for your gas-powered car? That’s because it doesn’t need one. No, Greens didn’t tell you about that either.

Talk to some Detroit-area car repair shops — where new car prototypes are not uncommon — and they might tell you that electric vehicles are different. Crash a gas-powered vehicle and the shop boys go to work. No draining the gas tank. No decoupling the 12-volt battery. Crash a plug-in and company officials descend to warn of not cutting high voltage cables — in fact, they would prefer repair shops not deal with the cars at all.

GM says it had developed a depowering protocol in the wake of the Volt’s first NHTSA-monitored fire. But such a protocol, says Visnic, raises the question: “Who’s going to handle that when your car crashes?”

Chevy has reacted efficiently to the Volt fire issue by soothing customers with free loaners if they are concerned about their cars. And government ownership of GM will likely protect it from agency (i.e., LaHood’s) over-reaction. But Greens will have a tougher time explaining the fairy tale of the battery-powered Car of the Future.

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