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Is the Chevy Volt safe? Government still checking fire risks but GM says yes

January 6, 2012 - 12:10 PM
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The new fixes. (Photo: General Motors)

Did U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood speak too soon about the Chevy Volt? The General Motors electric car suffered from quite a bit of hype late last year due to potential fire risks surrounding the battery. In early December, LaHood declared that the Chevy Volt was safe despite the government's concern.

But this week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration insisted the government investigation is ongoing and that there are no absolute conclusions yet. The U.S Department of Transportation division is working with General Motors as well as the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Energy to determine whether the electric car model does pose any real fire risk. The agency is "continuing to gather and assess information on the post-crash fire risk in these vehicles," according to a statement released yesterday.

No real-world fires have, of course, occurred, and it doesn't sound like the electric cars are bursting into flames very casually — "It appears that both battery intrusion and coolant leakage must be present to enable post-crash fire in the Volt," the NHTSA says.

But General Motors has apparently cooked up a new steel reinforcement device that addresses the issue of battery intrusion, and a Dec. 22 test of the new Chevy Volt design went off well. The motor company insisted this week that it's solved the problem, and the government, while still conducting an investigation for the next several weeks, seems to be buying it: "The preliminary results of the crash test indicate the remedy proposed by General Motors today should address the issue of battery intrusion," NHTSA stated.

"The Volt is safe," said GM senior president Mary Barra at yesterday's press conference. "We ran a series of internal tests, and all successfully resulted in no battery pack intrusion or coolant leakage, thereby eliminating the chance for a post-crash electrical fire for this test condition."

But will drivers still come around to the Volt? GM sold just over 6,000 Volts last year, a lower number than anticipated, and "fire" is a powerful word to any driver, even if the risks are completely extinguished. D.C. has continued to add electric-vehicle charging stations throughout recent months and received its first shipment of 360 Volts in December of 2010. GM will be adding these fixes to the new Volts being produced this month and says current customers will be "individually notified when the modifications are available for their vehicles."

The government hopes to release its final assessment about the safety of the Volt in the coming weeks.

The Washington Post recently criticized subsidies that the U.S. government has offered to encourage the electric car market and suggested that the electric car is a toy that only rich people can play with. The editorial offered gloomy predictions about the car that I disagreed with. The Chevy Volt's suggested retail price starts at $31,645, for what it's worth, after applying a $7,500 tax credit ... although the celebrity image may not be helped by this Volt promo featuring super-rich talk show host Jay Leno:

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