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GM to Bolster Chevy Volt Batteries Following Electrical Fires

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

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General Motors announced on Thursday that it will install mechanisms to better protect the battery pack of its Chevy Volt electric-gas hybrid. GM stopped short of calling it a recall, but will notify customers of the more than 7,600 Volts currently on the road when the retrofit modifications are available although the company hasn’t specified a time frame for this.

GM’s action came in response to a federal investigation into the possibility that Chevy Volt batteries could catch fire during a severe side-impact collision. In May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crashed a Chevy Volt in a new car assessment program test designed to measure the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. During that test, the vehicle’s battery was damaged and the coolant line was ruptured, according to the NHTSA. A fire involving the test vehicle occurred more than three weeks after it was crashed, and the agency concluded that the damage to the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery during the crash test led to the fire.

The agency re-created the May test three times in November to better study what happened. In each of the battery tests, the Volt’s battery was damaged 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.

To reduce the likelihood of an electrical fire igniting days or weeks after a collision, the Volts will be fitted with steel reinforcements to the battery pack’s existing safety cage. In addition, GM will add a sensor to the battery coolant system reservoir to monitor coolant levels. A tamper-resistant bracket will likewise be installed to the top of the battery coolant reservoir to help prevent potential coolant overfill. In addition to retrofitting Volts already on the road, GM said it would incorporate these additions into the Volt manufacturing process.

GM says it conducted four successful Volt crash tests in December after adding the structural enhancements. There was no intrusion into the battery pack and no coolant leakage in any of the tests, according to the company. A GM press statement indicates that, through the first 11 months of 2011, Volt owners accumulated nearly 20 million miles without an incident similar to the results in the NHTSA tests.

Images courtesy of General Motors

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. brainwashedalgorithim 12:20 am 01/6/2012

    Those billions were used well. Thanks B.O. At a cost of 250k per unit counting taxpayer subsidies I would expect better…NOT

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  2. 2. sault 7:22 am 01/6/2012

    You are brainwashed! And good job spreading right wing misinformation! Too bad the money GM got from the government helped to fund R&D, testing AND advanced battery plants. Too bad that $250K per vehicle shrinks a little for every volt sold until it eventually disappears! In fact, in the month since that LIE was put forward by fossil-fueled “think” tanks, the number of extra Volts on the road has probably slashed it down a bit! According to your logic, computers are a bad idea because it took millions of dollars to build the first mainframes and you mistakenly distribute the start-up costs over a small number of units. ANY new technology will have a large “cost” per unit until you sell enough of them.

    Yeah, I agree that the Volt is a little overpriced and it gets disappointing fuel economy once the battery is depleted, but you need to stop cramming your head full of idiotic right-wing talking points. If you incorporated the true cost to society of pollution, climate change and the perils associated with being dependent on oil, a regular petroleum-powered car would be MUCH more expensive. It’s only fair that the Volt is a little more expensive since it cuts down on a lot of these costs.

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  3. 3. teco13 7:57 pm 01/6/2012

    Sure move factory to China, real American.Keep China workers busy and not the people in this country. No wonder no one but the government is buying their own cars trying to fool the public. The next election will end it all………

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  4. 4. dustindegregorio 11:19 pm 01/6/2012

    its funny how none of yalls comments have anything to do with the story. GM is the best at makeing great cars and trucks hands down. so what bout the battery dont sound like that big of a deal to me and they are fixing it. so what is the problem, a fire a week or two after it was wrecked? i do remember toyotas would not stop cuz of the new system they tryed on there cars, i remember ford breaks not working right and causeing fires while ur in the car and this is just the start. so what if GM had a little problem it happens all the time to all the other car makers so i dont really care.

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