"Fire" and "automobile" are two things that consumers don't want to hear in the same sentence, much less see on the same page. But Chevrolet, Nissan and other automotive brands still have a way to go to make an air-tight case that problems with fires don't accompany the use of their vehicles or, more broadly, EV-automotive technology.
The federal government has announced that it will do more testing of the lithium-ion battery systems in the Volt after a recent fire at a government testing center in which a Volt battery system, damaged in a crash test, caught fire. And last week, Duke Energy asked its North Carolina customers who own electric-car charging stations to stop using the products after a fire last month at a house that had a station. The utility didn't necessarily implicate the charging station in the blaze, but it is the focus of the investigation. And in any event, it's going to make future electric-car considerers just a tad more cautious.
Everyone involved is quick to say that there's no reason to believe electric cars are more dangerous than conventional gasoline vehicles. But it's understandable that the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would want to make absolutely sure EVs don't involve higher risks of fire, especially given the huge push that the Obama administration has been making to get Americans to buy the vehicles.
So far, GM has sold about 5,000 Volts in the United States and Nissan has sold about 8,000 Leafs, numbers that are somewhat production-constrained — but which also don't testify to a groundwell of popular interest in a U.S. automotive market that will amount to 12 million to 13 million vehicles overall this year. Meanwhile, the previous generation of electrified vehicles, hybrids, have been languishing on the lots of U.S. automotive dealers.
And it's not as if there is no connection whatsoever between conflagration and the lithium-ion batteries that power today's EVs. In fact, thwarting fire dangers was one of the big developmental hurdles that has been overcome by EV makers. Lithium is flammable and "burns really hot," an engineering consultant told Automotive News.
Yet at this point, the overwhelming evidence is that Volt and Leaf aren't prone to fire problems, although it's possible that some of the increasingly popular EV-charging systems may be vulnerable. "I want to make this very clear: the Volt is a safe car," said Jim Federico, GM's chief engineer for electric vehicles.
Expect GM and the federal government to make absolutely sure on this investigation. They both know what happens when you play with fire.