A lot is being said about the Chevrolet Volt and the possibility that the battery pack may catch on fire after a high-speed side impact.
It will be weeks or months before engineers know exactly what happens in this severe and unusual accident situation. Let’s look at the conditions to get a handle on the event.
The NHTSA performed a high-speed side impact test on a number of Volts that simulated hitting a tree or pole. Afterward the car was rotated 180 degrees onto its roof to simulate a rollover. The best information I can find says one battery caught on fire one week after impact, another ignited three weeks later, and a third was found to have sparked but did not catch fire.
These are cars that would not be drivable and occupants would be gone from the car long before any demonstrable threat. GM has protocol in place for the battery coolant to be drained in any case of severe impact (which at this point remains the main suspect). That would lower the risk of a damaged car that was stored inside of a building.
Does this event present a risk to Volt owners?
Given the current information, it’s my opinion that it doesn’t. First and foremost, in any passenger vehicle there is always the risk of fire since, last time I checked, gasoline is a flammable liquid.
The conditions the NHTSA uses to test are designed to uncover any situation that might occur but are severe and unlikely to happen in the real world. My first concern with occupants in a crash like this with any car would be blunt force trauma, not fire.
More than anything, I believe the larger story happening here is how General Motors has changed the way that they respond to a potential product crisis. They first offered up a free loaner car to any Volt owner that feels unsafe (two owners have reportedly taken them up on it) and have now offered to buy back any Volt from owners. They have been candid and above board with automotive writers since the event was reported. They are now working with the NHTSA to see if they can find why its happening and whether other battery powered cars could have the same risk.
I’ll continue to monitor the situation and update this column when I find out more information.