The Chevy Volt Becomes A Political Punching Bag

Congress probes NHTSA's handling of fire investigation

Only five days ago, it seemed controversy surrounding the Chevrolet Volt had finally been quelled.

But the flagship electric vehicle of General Motors again found itself under the federal spotlight Wednesday, this time the subject of a Congressional subcommittee hearing that probed the government's recent handling of an investigation into the vehicle.

Republican lawmakers, who have been previously vocal about their opposition to the Federal bailout of GM in 2009 and to the Volt vehicle in particular because it is eligible for federal tax credits, charged that the Obama administration pressured officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to delay an investigation into the Volt's post-crash battery-pack fires for political gains.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Oversight regulatory subcommittee, suggested that NHTSA administrators waited six months to open its investigation into the fires because the Obama had heavily championed and promoted its green technology.

"There's a conflict of interest in how this administration has handled consumer risk and inexplicably delayed this investigation for six months," said Jordan, before noting the time period coincided with negotiations for a toughened Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard.

That investigation officially concluded Friday, when NHTSA announced the Volt had no "discernible defect" and that electric vehicles posed no greater fire risk than their gasoline-powered counterparts.

GOP lawmakers, in Wednesday's hearings, focused on the time that led up to the formal investigation.

On June 6, 2011, NHTSA officials said workers had returned from the weekend and found a fire had taken place in a Volt that had undergone testing. Administrators said it took several months of preliminary investigating to determine the source of the fire and isolate the problem.

"It could have been arson, it could have been anything," said David L. Strickland, NHTSA's chief administrator.

In mid-November, he said NHTSA workers, purposely trying to damage the Volt's lithium-ion battery in testing, successfully replicated the fires, which sometimes did not ignite until weeks after the test. A formal investigation opened on Nov. 25.

Strickland said the agency typically did not open investigations when no real-world incidents had been reported and no that no real-world fatalities had been recorded. In those cases, the investigation into the Volt was unprecedented.

But Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), himself a Chevy dealer who has frequently criticized the Volt, accused NHTSA officials of stalling while the Obama administration negotiated the now-pending 54.5 miles-per-gallon fuel economy standard.

"Whose best interest were you acting in?," he asked Strickland on Wednesday. "It certainly wasn't the American public or General Motors. I am really disturbed that this happened and that the disclosure happened by chance."

Kelly has repeatedly expressed his opposition to tax-payers supplying subsidy to buyers of certain types of vehicles, such as electric, hybrid, natural gas or diesel vehicles.

NHTSA's inquiry into the Volt was first revealed in a Bloomberg News report.

GM engineers spent December devising a fix for the battery pack, which spreads force around the battery in a side-impact collision and adds a sensor to monitor coolant levels. No recall was issued, although Volt owners can have the modifications made at dealers starting in February.

The redesign satisfied NHTSA, which recommended no further action in the 135-page report on the Volt investigation.

It's GOP vs. Dems again

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the ranking Democrat on the Oversight subcommittee, accused Republicans of holding the acrimonious hearings as a means of undermining Obama's foray into green technology and push for electric vehicles.

"The technology is critical to both protecting the environment and ensuring success of the U.S. auto manufacturing industry," he said. "It would be very bad to do anything to demolish the potential for electric vehicles."

The investigation did little to stymie sales of the Volt. Although the 7,671 units sold in 2011 were below GM's stated goal of 10,000, the model enjoyed its best sales month ever in December, when dealers moved 1,529 vehicles.

It's unknown what effect the latest round of publicity will have on the vehicle. General Motors has a stated goal of 60,000 sales in 2012. But GM CEO Dan Akerson expressed exasperation at the political gamesmanship Wednesday.

"We did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag," he testified. "And that, sadly, is what the Volt has become."

Akerson is a self-described "conservative Republican." But he has also said that he supports the Obama administration's push for higher fuel economy standards, and that alternative propulsion vehicles like the Volt are deserving of tax-credit support in their early sales to help them get established with consumers.

-with David Kiley contributing

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