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Could Chevy Volt Lithium Ion Battery Fires Burn Out Interest in EVs and Hybrids?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Most of the lingering concerns that drivers have about electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) can be traced back to their batteries—in particular, cost and capacity. Now add safety to that list.

That’s because Chevrolet’s Volt is catching fire, though not in the way General Motors wanted. In three National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) assessments dating back to May, the PHEV Volt’s lithium-ion battery packs burst into flames following tests designed to measure the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. As a result, the NHTSA has launched a safety-defect investigation of the Volt.

During the initial crash test in May, the Volt sustained damage to its battery and a ruptured coolant line. When the car burst into flames more than three weeks later, the NHTSA fingered the lithium-ion battery pack as the culprit. The agency re-created the May test three times this month to better study what happened. In each of the battery tests, the Volt’s battery was impacted and rotated to simulate a side-impact collision into a narrow object such as a tree or a pole followed by a rollover. Two of those tests resulted in battery fires, although none of the fires broke out immediately upon impact at the crash site. In one case, the flames started hours after the test. The other battery caught fire a week after it had been tested.

Lithium-ion battery fires are nothing new, but until now they have been more a problem for makers of cell phones, MP3 players and laptops than car companies. As Scientific American reported in August 2010, the usual cause of lithium-ion battery fires has been “thermal runaway,” a chemical reaction that could start from excessive overheating, then potentially cause a cell to catch fire or explode. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories’ Battery Abuse Testing Laboratory concluded at the time that although even extreme driving conditions are unlikely to trigger those problems in automobiles, a crash could, and so could a sudden overcharge—for example, if lightning struck a charging port while a car was being recharged.

The fact that the Volt fires were traced back to lithium-ion batteries is especially troubling for the future of EVs and PHEVs, which use an electric motor for propulsion and batteries for electricity storage. The energy in the batteries provides all main and auxiliary power onboard the vehicle. Continued improvements in charging capacity and lower pricing are widely seen as crucial to mass-market acceptance, and neither will come easily. For instance, EVs and PHEVs need to cut battery costs from $500 to $800 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to less than $400 per kWh by 2020 to be competitive with gas-powered vehicles, according to a report released earlier this year by the International Energy Agency.

The NHTSA claims it is not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. Still, the agency acknowledges concern that its tests, designed to replicate situations that drivers may actually face on the road, resulted in fire. The NHTSA released a statement last week that provides little comfort, indicating that Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles “have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern.”

In the meantime, the agency advises drivers and passengers of lithium-ion battery-powered vehicles involved in collisions to exit those vehicles as quickly as possible and stay away until emergency responders arrive. The NHTSA advises those responders to first disconnect the battery from the vehicle circuits if possible. Damaged EVs should then be taken to an open area for storage rather than parked inside a garage while awaiting repairs.

Image: GM put its Chevy Volt on display at April’s New York International Auto Show. This stripped-down model displayed the gas–electric hybrid’s lithium ion battery (1), charger port, electric drive unit and engine generator. Courtesy of Larry Greenemeier

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. geojellyroll 4:49 pm 11/29/2011

    answer…NO.. Because there is NO real interest to begin with other than hype.

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  2. 2. JacobSilver 8:44 pm 11/29/2011

    Other cars have malfunctions of their electrical system which causes the accelerator to go to maximum. Certainly, the Volt isn’t the only imperfect car on the market. It is peculiar impacts which cause the fire, and the courtesy of the battery is that the fire does not occur until days after the accident. Plenty of time to get to safety.

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  3. 3. Bboy705 9:11 pm 11/29/2011

    The solution is simple! Install ejection seats that launch the driver and passengers out of the vehicle when a fire does start! Of course this idea would only work outdoors (not so good in parking garages) where there are no bridges or overhead wires.

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  4. 4. rknight101 9:48 pm 11/29/2011

    Yes, let’s stick with gasoline which is so much safer and less polluting than electricity -

    Kenya gasoline blast kills at least 61

    Link to this
  5. 5. grackle 10:48 pm 11/29/2011

    You gotta be kidding. I agree with rknight101. This whole thing is perverse. What have we got now, three tests that show explosions due to battery in an electric car? Two of which occured weeks later. Seriously?! Hasn’t anyone watched a movie involving car chases? Don’t they usually end with our hero pulling a hapless Joe Public from a burning car seconds before it explodes. Writing off electric cars on the basis of battery fires is hypocritical…unless you ride a bicycle…and the extent to which it is being hyped in the media makes me wonder who benefits.

    My favourite sentence from the article is this one:

    “In the meantime, the agency advises drivers and passengers of lithium-ion battery-powered vehicles involved in collisions to exit those vehicles as quickly as possible and stay away until emergency responders arrive.”

    Hmmm…now isn’t that great guidance.

    They probably edited the bit that said:

    “In contrast, the agency advises drivers and passengers of gas-powered vehicles involved in collisions to exit those vehicles at a relaxed pace and lean casually on the vehicle until emergency responders arrive.”

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  6. 6. Mr.Tie 12:01 am 11/30/2011

    Phhh, it caught on fire after it hit a pole? I had a 97 dodge dynasty that would start smoking from the wiring just sitting there, I finally did it by pulling doughnuts in a parking lot till the exhaust manifold set the engine compartment on fire… that was pretty entertaining… but, I will say lithium is more of a hazard than gasoline, not by a lot, but the nature of an alkali metal makes it a pain in the ass to put out.

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  7. 7. sault 7:18 am 11/30/2011

    Re: Article’s Headline: No, these fires won’t “burn out” interest in EVs, but stupid, troll-bait headlines like this just might!

    I say again geojellyroll, please share your market research with us that backs up your statement that there’s no interest in plug-in cars. Since Nissan and GM can’t make these vehicles fast enough to satisfy demand, I think your statement is really just made in willful ignorance. But, if you present a coherent market analysis that proves your point, I would definitely be interested in seeing it!

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  8. 8. Let's Be Fair 10:25 am 12/1/2011

    A ford recall for gas powered cars that started 550 fires and burned down many homes.

    Wish I had 10 bucks for every roadside car fire I saw in my 63 years!

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  9. 9. dieselpop1 5:59 pm 12/1/2011

    It’s too early to draw conclusions on the matter. With only about 6000 sold so far (instead of the target of 10,000) comparing fire hazards with vehicles numbering in the millions of units is pure deflection.

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  10. 10. Let's Be Fair 7:07 pm 12/1/2011

    Exactly. But people are drawing conclusions. In the two house fires that Volts were parked in the garage, the fire marshals stated the cars had nothing to do with the fire. One investigation is still ongoing, but preliminary evidence excludes the Volt.

    In the crash test fire, The NHTSA did not follow GM’s protocols. Yet these three fires are being touted as proof of the Volts “unsafe” battery pack. Even junkyards take out car batteries to prevent fires.

    I could put a hundred links here of ICE car roadside fires from YouTube. Proves nothing.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Let's Be Fair 7:08 pm 12/1/2011

    Forgot the link.

    Link to this

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