As a tipster put it: "Crap."
Even though there is plenty of evidence that the Chevrolet Volt is a safe car (one just protected its occupants in a recent crash with a bus), there are now new and seemingly legitimate worries about the safety of the 16-kWh battery pack after a crash. Bloomberg reports that a Volt that was parked at a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration test center recently caught fire, burning nearby vehicles. The Volt had been put through a side-impact crash test three weeks prior and an official told Bloomberg that investigators determined the battery was indeed the source of the fire. Apparently, NHTSA reps are talking with "all automakers" with lithium-ion vehicle for sale (or coming soon) about the safety of their battery packs.
On the one hand, this is bad news for people who already have worries about the safety of plug-in vehicle. On the other hand, a crashed car, whether powered by gasoline or lithium, isn't exactly a safe item. Given that this fire follows a second garage fire involving a Volt (whose cause has not yet been determined), we expect a spike of "plug-in cars are bad" news soon. Whether this is warranted or not is another question. NHTSA has issued a statement to Bloomberg that said:
Indeed. We'll have more on this as details are released.
Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, all vehicles – both electric and gasoline-powered – have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash.
UPDATE: General Motors has released an official statement, which has been added after the jump.
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DETROIT – The following statement can be attributed Jim Federico, General Motors chief engineer for electric vehicles:
"First and foremost, I want to make this very clear: the Volt is a safe car. We are working cooperatively with NHTSA as it completes its investigation. However, NHTSA has stated that based on available data, there's no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gasoline-powered car.
"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.
"We are working with other vehicle manufacturers, first responders, tow truck operators, and salvage associations with the goal of implementing industry-wide protocols."