GM Developing Methods to Handle Volt Batteries After Crashes

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By David Welch – Nov 17, 2011
General Motors Co. (GM) is developing ways to discharge the battery in Chevrolet Volts after accidents to prevent fires like the one that followed a government crash- test of the plug-in hybrid car in May.

GM is working on safety practices with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and will make them public when completed, Rob Peterson, a GM spokesman, said yesterday. The Detroit-based automaker has taken longer to develop a plan than Nissan Motor Co. did for its Leaf electric car. Both the Volt and Leaf went on sale in December 2010.

“I can’t conceive that they didn’t have a standard operating procedure in place for handling a wrecked vehicle before the car went on sale,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington. “NHTSA and GM should have established protocols in place before it went on sale.”

The procedures are intended to keep rescue workers, dealers and auto-salvagers safe and head off potential fires that may jeopardize the safety reputation of the Volt, which is the focus of GM’s marketing.

NHTSA is scrutinizing the safety of lithium-ion batteries that power all plug-in electric vehicles after a Volt caught on fire three weeks after a May 12 crash-test. GM believes that a coolant leak helped carry an electrical charge to something flammable inside the battery, Peterson said yesterday. If a lithium battery is pierced by steel, a chemical reaction will start raising the temperature and can result in a fire.

The company now has a process in place to draw down power in the battery so it won’t catch on fire after a collision, Jim Federico, GM’s chief engineer for electric cars, wrote on a company website.

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“The Volt is safe,” Federico wrote in a Nov. 15 post on “The fire occurred because the battery wasn’t completely discharged after the test.” Federico also wrote that, “GM developed its battery depowering process for the Volt after NHTSA’s test.” The agency also has given the car its top crash rating.

GM had a process to discharge Volt batteries. The automaker didn’t distribute it to tow truck drivers, body shops, salvage yards and others who may handle the car after emergency crews stabilize the scene of an accident. The company was sending engineers out to check any Volt that got in an accident and, if needed, discharge the battery, Peterson said.

“We had a process internally but I don’t believe it was shared with anyone,” Peterson said in a phone interview. “The incident with NHTSA raised awareness that we had to develop a procedure and alert all stakeholders.”

Emergency Training

Before the Volt and Leaf went on sale, GM and Nissan had been working to train emergency-response workers through the National Fire Protection Association, a national fire-prevention and firefighters group based in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Workers are trained to disconnect the 12-volt battery from either car, which will shut down the separate high-voltage battery, said Jason Emory, a trainer with the association and also a lieutenant with the Waterbury, Connecticut, Fire Department.

Emory said the Volt also has a mechanism to disconnect the 16-kilowatt-hour battery from the car.

Nissan has taught firefighters and rescue teams how to approach the Leaf and make sure the battery is disconnected, said Bob Yakushi, director of product safety for Nissan North America. After emergency workers stabilize the scene, Nissan recommends a Leaf be towed to one of its dealers where the battery will be handled by technicians, Yakushi said.

Leaf’s Results

GM slid 0.6 percent to $22.52 at 9:45 a.m. New York time. Nissan’s American depositary receipts, each equal to two ordinary shares, fell 1 percent to $17.76.

Nissan has not encountered any fires with the Leaf since it went on sale in the U.S., Yakushi said. While there have been several accidents reported and “quite a few Leafs were destroyed” during Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in March, none caught fire, he said.

Nissan has a steel case around its battery to protect the battery from puncture, Yakushi said. Peterson said the Volt does not have such a second protective casing around the battery. GM placed the battery at the center of the car, which is the safest location, he said.

NHTSA asked automakers, including GM, Nissan and Ford Motor Co. (F), that sell or have plans to sell vehicles with lithium-ion batteries about the batteries’ fire risk, four people familiar with the inquiry said. LG Chem Ltd. (051910), South Korea’s biggest chemical maker, supplies Volt batteries.

The information will be used for a three-year $8.8 million electric-vehicle safety study it announced in June, an agency official said.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Welch in Southfield, Michigan at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at [email protected]