The Explosive Story That Could Burn Electric Cars

The government is investigating the Chevy Volt for being a fire risk. That's bad news for GM and fans of green cars.   

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Reuters

Few phrases give car-makers nightmares like the words "fire hazard."

The reasons are fairly obvious. Nobody wants to drive their family around in a rolling tinder box. And the image of a burning vehicle can cause lasting damage to a company's brand. More than 30 years after it was taken off the road, the famously combustable Ford Pinto is still shorthand for everything that can go wrong with a car design. 

So executives at General Motors are probably are losing sleep now that auto-safety officials are investigating whether the company's prized Chevy Volt poses a fire risk after a crash.

The National Highway Transit Safety Administration announced its official inquiry on Friday, but the issue had been building up for months. It first emerged back in May, when a Chevy Volt caught fire three weeks after a side-impact crash test. The test involved slamming the car into a pole, rolling it over to simulate a particularly nasty accident, and leaving it to sit in storage, where it eventually went up in flames. The NHTSA concluded that damage to the car's lithium ion battery was responsible. It ran three additional tests where they beat up a few batteries in a lab, two of which eventually caught on fire, as well.

It's an unpleasant story for GM. But it's also bad news for the rest of the electric car movement. The Volt is no ordinary sedan. It's a standard bearer. When GM was seeking a bailout from Congress, it trotted out the plug-in hybrid electric Volt as proof that the company was changing its truck-obsessed ways. Since then, executives have taken to calling it GM's "moonshot." Fewer than 6,000 have been sold. But the company already has plans to use the Volt's engineering on other models, such as a new Cadillac. 

For all those reasons, the car generates an inordinate amount of media attention. And arguments about its success or failure have a habit of turning into bigger discussions about the future of green cars in America. So it's not hard to imagine how, in the public's imagination, questions about Volt's safety could easily turn into bigger questions about electric vehicles overall. After all, there's not much difference between the Volt's battery and, say, the Nissan Leaf's. Already, The Wall Street Journal has already run a piece titled, "GM's Volt Woes Cast Shadow on E-Cars."

They shouldn't.

As of now, there's no evidence that drivers have much to worry about, with the Volt or any other electric vehicle. The government still believes the Volt is safe, since the fires have only happened well after crash tests. GM says it's developed appropriate post-crash steps for removing and discharging Volt batteries, which would eliminate the risk of a fire.

There's also no sign at this point that the Volt is any more of a fire risk than your average gasoline-powered car. According to the National Fire Protection Association, more more than 280,000 vehicles catch fire each year, causing hundreds of deaths. In 2009, Ford recalled millions of vehicles when it discovered faulty cruise control buttons were catching on fire. Audi, BMW, and even GM have also had fire-risk related recalls on gas-powered vehicles in last few years. 

But again, the Volt is as much a symbol as a car. That's why it's a favorite target of pundits like Fox's Neal Cavuto, who aired a segment on the fires titled "Hybrid From Hell." (One of his guests describes it here). How bad could the Volt scandal get? Think of the hysteria over Toyota's "sudden acceleration" problem -- which government engineers never corroborated -- and add flames.

GM has been out in front of the issue so far. The company has been more communicative than Toyota ever was during its own crisis, the LA Times reported. It has already offered loaner cars to any concerned Volt owners, and says few drivers have accepted. But the story is far from over. How GM handles it will have lasting implications not just for the company, but the industry as a whole. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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