The Volt, Chevrolet’s ground-breaking electric/gas vehicle, has been placed under a media microscope in the past few weeks, but is all the hullaballoo justified? First, let’s take a step back and look at exactly what has happened.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a statement last month in which it said a Volt that had been crash tested caught fire three weeks after it was tested. NHTSA said damage to the Volt’s lithium-ion battery and its liquid coolant during the crash led to the fire. The statement caused quite a stir in the national news media, which are known of course for not overreacting.
But when you look at the whole NHTSA statement, it becomes clear that more investigation and study are needed before anyone concludes that the Volt is anything but a five-star safe, gas saving, innovative vehicle.
The statement said NHTSA was not aware of any real-world instances of any of the 6,100 Volts on the streets catching fire after a crash. It continued, “Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern.”
The agency has launched an investigation into the incident, but has not issued any recalls of the Volt or any of its parts.
In fact, the NHTSA statement said, “NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles have incredible potential to save consumers money at the pump, help protect the environment, create jobs, and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on oil.”
GM has launched its own investigation into the fire, and has offered to take back any Volt and give the buyer a GM loaner vehicle until the issue is resolved. GM says its own investigation will focus on the performance, handling storage and disposal of batteries after a crash.
“Our customers’ peace of mind is too important to us for there to be any concern or any worry,” said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America. “The question is about how to deal with the battery days and weeks after a severe crash, making it a matter of interest not just for the Volt, but for our industry as we continue to advance the pursuit of electric vehicles.”
Meanwhile, Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor of materials, science and engineering, said in an interview with Autowriters Associates Inc. that he believes electric vehicles are inherently safer than gasoline. “I’d rather sit next to an automotive lithium-ion battery than a tank full of gasoline any day,” Chiang was quoted as saying.
I don’t have the professor’s MIT credentials, but I do agree with his opinion. Besides, don’t think for a minute that gasoline won’t burst into flames after a serious crash, and it won’t be three weeks later, either.
So when the 2012 test Volt arrived recently, I had no second thoughts about pulling it into the garage and plugging it into a 110-volt outlet and going to bed. The next morning, I got up, unplugged the car and drove to work, using not a drop of gasoline on our 12-mile, one-way commute.
For those who might not yet know, the Volt is an electric vehicle that has a backup 1.4-liter gasoline engine. The Volt will go about 35 miles on the 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack alone, then the gas engine will extend the car’s range to nearly 380 miles.
If you drive fewer than 35 miles per day, you might not ever have to put gasoline in the Volt.
The test Volt, which had navigation and heated leather seats among its extras, had a sticker price of $39,145.
Standard features include a futuristic dash layout with touch sensitive controls, a 7-inch hi-res screen, a configurable instrument cluster, a smart-key system with pushbutton start and a home charger that will fully recharge a depleted battery pack in about 10 hours for about $1.50 a day.
I have driven four Volts during the past 12 months, in varying weather and road conditions, on long trips and short ones, and I experienced nary a hitch. The Volt performed exactly as promised.
While the Volt is one of the first mass produced electric/gas hybrids, lots of other manufacturers have and are preparing their own versions, some with and some without gasoline engines. As a result, the NHTSA investigation will be watched closely, and not just by GM. E lectrification in the auto industry is just getting started.