Will GM Again Kill the Electric Car?

By Chris Haak

There is more than a little chatter over the past week or two in the autoblogosphere about the Chevy Volt.  Normally, in these media frenzied times, that would be good news for GM’s environmental halo vehicle, but perhaps there *is* a such thing as bad publicity.

You see, the Volt seems to have a bit of a problem with catching fire following crash tests.

The firestorm (sorry) began on May 12, when a Volt parked at a NHTSA testing facility caught fire some three weeks after undergoing a crash test.  As a follow-up, the agency last week crashed three more Volts, and the results were not exactly positive for GM’s extended range EV.

  • The first test last week, on November 16, did not result in a fire.
  • The second test, on November17, saw its pack temperature increase, but it did not catch fire.  But the battery pack from the this test did catch fire a week later, on November 24.
  • The third test, on November 18, saw the car’s battery emit smoke and sparks a few hours following the crash, after the battery was rotated.

So in four Volt crashes that the NHTSA conducted, three of the cars either caught fire or sparked and smoked.  That’s batting .750.

While it’s too early to know exactly what has caused the Volt’s seemingly-sudden propensity to self-immolate, we do know that it seems to be related to situations where the car’s large, T-shaped battery is damaged.

Much was made in the past several years of the necessity to have safety protocols in place for dealing with hybrid cars after severe crashes.  That’s the reason that all hybrids have bright orange insulation on their thick, high-voltage wiring – so first responders know not to cut them without first de-powering the car’s battery, which offers far more than the normal 12 volts.  Yet GM launched the Volt without finalizing a battery de-powering procedure.  Our friends at TTAC got their hands on what seems to be a draft version of that procedure, which utilizes the car’s OnStar telematics to determine the severity of the crash and condition of the battery, and if it needs special attention, a Volt battery representative is dispatched to the car to de-power the battery.

There are also two engineering decisions that the Volt team made which may be exacerbating this issue.  First, the Volt uses a sophisticated liquid cooling system for its battery pack, designed to mitigate temperature extremes.  CNET does a nice job of describing the system:

Standard auto coolant circulates through 144 metal plates, called fins, between each of the Volt battery’s 288 cells. The fins are only 1mm thick, but coolant still circulates through channels in them. When the battery needs to warm up, a heating coil warms the fluid.

Sixteen heat sensors help regulate the temperature of the cells throughout the battery, helping battery life.

GM says the battery is designed to perform reliably between minus 13 degrees and 122 degrees.

However, the downside of that approach is that when a cooling line is compromised, as seemed to have happened in the NHTSA crash tests, the cooling system will at best not work as well as it’s designed to, and at worst, will simply fail.  The Volt’s arch-rival, the Nissan Leaf, uses air cooling to keep its battery cool.  Though air cooling theoretically would allow for more extreme temperature variance than liquid cooling – and is less space-efficient – it also doesn’t depend on keeping the antifreeze circulating through the system.  The Leaf doesn’t have battery coolant lines that could fail in a crash.

The second engineering deviation between the Volt and Leaf is that the Leaf’s battery is encased in steel (see photo at right), while the Volt’s taller, T-shaped unit is not (see photo at left).  Most likely, packaging requirements dictate the shape of the batteries in the two cars.  The Volt has to accommodate not just a large battery pack, but also a gasoline tank, gasoline engine, and exhaust system.  This is also probably why the similarly-sized Leaf is able to seat five, while the Volt can only seat four.  The Volt’s 16 kWh battery is not as large as the Leaf’s 24 kWh unit, but the Leaf’s EV-only design allows the battery to be packaged completely below the passenger compartment, rather than partially inside it (taking up the would-be middle-rear seat).

Lithium-ion batteries, as are used in the Tesla Roadster, Leaf, Volt, and even the LaCrosse eAssist, are far more compact and energy-dense than previous-generation nickel metal hydride batteries were – the rule of thumb is that they are half the size and twice the capacity of the older-tech batteries.  But Li-Ion batteries are also somewhat more volatile, which is exactly the reason GM and Tesla have liquid cooling systems for the Volt and Roadster, respectively.  Remember the laptop battery fire crisis of 2006?  Maybe not vividly, but rest assured the Volt’s engineering team had it in the forefront of their minds when they seemingly over-engineered the Volt’s battery cooling system.  The Volt, after all, began its development in earnest when the laptop battery recall crisis was still a fresh memory.

GM’s crisis management has been decent thus far.  While it’s not selling the Volt in any kind of meaningful volume (just over 5,000 cars year to date through October 31), the company does have big plans for the car, including 45,000 US sales in 2012.  There’s also the matter of the car being an environmental halo car for GM.

The highlights of GM’s efforts to solve the issues thus far have included a letter from GM North America President Mark Reuss to all Volt owners assuring them of the car’s safety and that the company is working with NHTSA investigators to get to the bottom of the issue – while throwing in that he and his daughter both drive Volts and will continue to do so.  Mr. Reuss also extended an offer to Volt owners to get a free GM loaner car from their local dealer in the event that they are worried about their car being a hazard to drive while the exact cause of the fires is resolved – and hopefully a solution is found.

So this brings us to a fundamental question:  will buyers still consider the Volt to be safe?  The car has five-star safety ratings, and so far, it appears that the only fires have occurred in a laboratory setting (albeit one designed to mimic real world situations), and most importantly, quite a while after the crash event.  Frankly, I think the jury is still out.  In the short term, it sure isn’t helping the Volt – which already has the onus of convincing buyers to pay premium-car pricing for what is essentially a low-buck compact car with an expensive drivetrain – not to mention the stigma of being perceived as a government-mandated white elephant that few are interested in buying.

However, in the medium- to long-term, GM has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to customers, quickly get to the bottom of the problem, do whatever it can to make them whole, and come up with a solution that is not just an obvious band aid.  I have no doubt that General Motors of the 1970s or 1980s would have blamed the customer, blamed the test, or blamed any entity but itself, but from what I have heard directly from Mr. Reuss’ mouth, they have seen the light and will do whatever they can to win and retain customer loyalty.

The good news for GM is that, with the car’s high price and scant availability, only early adopters have bought the car so far – in other words, people who are inclined to love the car no matter what, or at least give the car a large benefit of doubt when problems occur.  There’s a risk that early adopters of new technology take – the technology is still immature and expensive, and there are bound to be wrinkles and issues with it.  Volt 2.0 or whatever they call it will probably be cheaper, more efficient, and more comfortable…but not the first Volt.  Do right by these people in this crisis, and there’s the very real possibility that these Volt zealots will help create another legendary customer service story like the young Lexus brand did in 1989 when the company recalled every LS400 it had built to repair a glitch found in two cars.  Consumer Reports reported this week that the Volt has the higher owner satisfaction of any car in their survey, with 93 percent of owners saying they’d buy the car again; it’s critical to keep those Volt advocates happy with their purchase decision.

It appears that GM was somewhat irresponsible in releasing a new car that did not yet have established procedures for handling a charged battery pack after a severe crash.  But with careful crisis management, keeping focus on the problem AND on customers, GM can turn this embarrassment into an opportunity to make a name for itself with some of its most biggest fans.

Screw this one up, though, and it may manage to set electric propulsion back several years, just as GM managed to do to diesel power in the US in the early 1980s.  Just as in that era, GM and other automakers must come up with a way to meet ever more stringent fuel economy standards, and electrification is a big part of that.  If customers are afraid for their safety with battery-powered cars, automakers won’t be able to hit aggressive targets without severely altering their product plans over the next five to ten years, and that won’t be pretty for any of us.

UPDATE 12/2/11:  GM CEO Dan Akerson told Reuters that the company will buy back any Volts that customers have decided they no longer want if those customers are concerned about fire safety.  In addition, he said that the company may redesign the Volt’s battery, although any such change would not be a short-term solution that may not be implemented until the car reaches its second generation several years down the road.  Finally, Akerson said that GM would not sell the Opel version of the Volt, called the Ampera, until it has gotten its arms around the fire issue.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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3 Comments

  1. We should have let these idiots go under when we had the chance instead of letting them come out of bankruptcy.

  2. Just imagine Floyd what if they go under and Toyota grabbed the blue prints of the Volt. Imagine the results, the “Toyota Volt go in flames with sudden acceleration”, LOL!:-D

  3. Let us be patient and let them figure it out. Why everybody is so eager to attack GM. Do you rather see that all innovative engineering and manufacturing jobs go to Asia! That wouldn’t too bad for the generation of lazy office workers except those jobs are no longer easy to find either.

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