Commentary

GM Facing PR Challenge Over Volt's Battery Fires

The headline in the Wall Street Journal reads “GM's Volt Woes Cast Shadow on E-Cars.” It is, of course, the kind of public relations nightmare no brand –- or technology -- in its infancy wants to face.  It will be interesting to see how General Motors reacts in the coming months to the investigation launched by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Friday to assess the risk of fire in Chevy Volts that have been involved in a serious crash.

The plug-in hybrid’s lithium ion battery powers the car 25 to 50 miles per charge and is backed up by a gasoline engine that gets 37 mpg. “Two of three recent tests resulted in one battery pack catching fire and one smoking and emitting sparks,” reports Greg Gardner in the Detroit Free Press.

Earlier this month, there were widespread media reports about a Volt catching fire after sitting for three weeks after a May side-impact crash test in Wisconsin, Gardner reports, and GM said at the time that it had not notified NHTSA of the need to drain the battery pack after the crash.

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The NHTSA said in statement Friday that it “continues to believe that electric vehicles have incredible potential to save consumers money at the pump, help protect the environment, create jobs, and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on oil. In fact, NHTSA testing on electric vehicles to date has not raised safety concerns about vehicles other than the Chevy Volt.”

The Volt consumer site does not mention the issue as of early this morning. In fact, the safety of the car is one of it main selling points. Copy points out that it was a 2011 Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety and received a 5–Star Overall Vehicle Safety score from the NHTSA. “Over, under, inside and around -- we've thought of safety from every angle,” it crows.

In a statement Friday, GM claimed "the Volt is safe and does not present undue risk as part of normal operation or immediately after a severe crash. GM and the agency's focus and research continue to be on battery performance, handling, storage and disposal after a crash or other significant event, like a fire, to better serve first- and secondary-responders."

But the automaker probably will have to go a lot further than that, in the near future, to really move the needle on a technology that people are wary about to begin with.

“Analysts said that the investigation could lead to increased consumer skepticism about electric vehicles, which have been slow to catch on in the mainstream because of concerns about cost-effectiveness, and how far the vehicles can travel before recharging,” writes David Sarno in the Los Angeles Times.

AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan says that the Volt uses the same type of lithium-ion batteries found in consumer electronics products such as laptops that have been known to overheat. "GM's going to have to reopen their safety book to prove that these vehicles are indeed safe," he tells Sarno.

"It's difficult to know how consumers will react. People who don't do the math will say, 'Oh, no, batteries are dangerous,' " Tom Saxon, a board member of Plug In America, tells the WSJ’s Sharon Terlep. "Even though a gasoline car is more likely to catch fire, they think an electric car is more dangerous because they aren't used to it."

The company has a lot riding on the Volt, as Ad Age’s Matthew Creamer pointed out in a piece carrying the headline “Volt Adds Luster to Chevy Brand” last month. Although production has been limited thus far and there are only about 6,000 vehicles on the road, the car is drawing consumers to dealerships for test drives.

“If the demand is there, the Volt could be the company's iPod, the shiny new device that changes behavior on a mass scale,” Creamer wrote. “If demand is weak, the Volt could be GM's Newton -- interesting, but ahead of its time.”

Linda Lee, a commenter to Terleps’s story in the WSJ, writes a long analysis of the threat of car fires in any vehicle –- pointing out that 215,000 car fires occurred in 2010 –- and concludes, “Undoubtedly GM et al will only get better at understanding how to prevent fires with Li batteries. The NHTSA findings could just as easily be reported using the headline ‘Volt Battery Proves To Be Safer Than Gas Tanks.’”

A commenter to James R. Hood’s story on ConsumerAffairs.com, which is titled “Is the Chevy Volt Fire-Prone? Feds Open an Inquiry,” makes a similar point: And yet the reporter asks in the headline "Is the Chevy Volt fire-prone?", knowing that few electric car skeptics will bother reading beyond it. As if a petrol powered car would be fireproof in a burning garage caused by something else.”

Many of the news stories about the incidents point out that electric vehicles are critical to the administration’s plans to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. President Barack Obama says he wants to see one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. The road to that goal has clearly gotten a bit bumpier.

 

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