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January 6, 2012  –  New Canaan, CT

The Chevy Volt has been in the news lately – and for the most part for very good reason.  The world’s first consumer available extended range electric vehicle continues to build sales momentum and an extremely loyal following.  We love our Chevy Volt and have now driven over 5,000 miles on just 16.7 gallons of gasoline!  The car is simply remarkable in execution, design, driving quality, and overall economy of operation.  At this time, we wanted to provide additional information to current and future Volt customers relating to the Volt’s safety.  This is a long post, but we feel this is important information and well worth your time.

General Motors has announced that its engineers have finalized a product improvement for the Chevrolet Volt that will effectively solve the post-crash-test battery fires reported by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration last fall.  It is anticipated that this product improvement will be retrofitted to current Volt owner’s vehicles sometime in February.  Once we have parts available, we will be notifying our customers to make convenient arrangements for the upgrade.  As General Motors believes, we at KARL Chevrolet have full faith in the Chevy Volt being a safe vehicle.  To date, there have been no real-world instances of a post-crash fire in a Chevy Volt.

As background, back in May 2011, NHTSA put the new Chevy Volt through a full array of crash tests – including front, rear, side, offset and rollover tests.  In each test, the Volt performed flawlessly, earning the top FIVE STAR TOTAL VEHICLE SAFETY RATING.  After the crash tests were concluded, NHTSA put the wrecked Volt out on a scrap pile of other crashed vehicles.  A little over 3 weeks later, this wrecked Volt caught fire.  After several months of investigation, both NHTSA and General Motors engineers concluded that the source of the fire was the Volt’s battery pack.

What was not widely reported in the media, however, was the fact that routine safety protocol suggests draining the battery of an electric vehicle after a severe crash, thus depleting the stored energy within the battery.  This protocol is similar to that for gasoline powered cars where the gas tank is drained after a severe crash.  In the case of the crash-tested Chevy Volt, NHTSA did not follow this safety protocol and stored the crashed Volt with a fully charged battery.

After determining the cause of the original fire was in the battery, NHTSA and GM began searching for a more specific cause.  This past fall, NHTSA crash tested several Volt battery packs (just the battery pack itself – outside of the car) in an effort to induce the same results.  Three battery packs were crash tested, each to a point where the battery case was compromised and the battery pack’s structure was severely damaged.  One of the battery packs was left flat on the ground.  Another was left standing upright on one end.  And the third battery pack was placed on a rotisserie type devise that essentially rotated the pack 90 degrees every six hours so that it rotated all the way around once per day.  The first pack had no issues.  The second pack showed signs of some smoke after more than a week, but never caught fire.  The third pack, after being rotated daily, did catch fire almost ten days after being crash tested.

After analysis, it was determined that the fire was the result of coolant leaking into the battery compartment and interacting with the electrical circuits.  It should be noted that the entire reason for coolant to exist around the battery pack is due to the effort in design undertaken by General Motors engineers to ensure the Volt’s battery pack has a long, useful life.  Unlike other Electric Vehicles which simply have ‘air cooled’ batteries (like the Nissan Leaf), the Chevy Volt has a liquid cooled battery pack.  The liquid cooling is intended to protect the Volt’s batteries from extreme temperatures – both hot and cold.  On extreme cold days, the Volt’s battery pack is heated and on extreme hot days it is cooled to ensure the battery stays within ideal operating temperatures.  It is the very existence of coolant due to the extra design care in the Volt that led to the post-crash test fire.

Again, I repeat, no real-world post-crash fires have occurred in a Chevy Volt.

As reported on by Jeff Cobb, “yesterday GM announced it had engineered an expedient but effective solution to post-crash- test battery fires reported by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and will ask Volt drivers to return to their dealers for the one-day reinforcing procedure.

Despite ongoing distortions of facts by critics including one Fox News pundit who suggested the vehicle might “blow up,” federal authorities have repeated that the Volt is safe and GM says its voluntary measure is intended to keep showing why the Volt is rated #1 in customer satisfaction.

According to Mary Barra, GM’s senior VP of global product development, the fire’s cause following a 20-mph side-impact into a pole involved rupturing the battery’s coolant lines that led to short circuiting.

“Testing and analysis revealed the fire was the result of a minor intrusion from a portion of the vehicle into a side section of the battery pack,” Barra said on Chevrolet “The intrusion resulted in a small coolant leak inside the battery, approximately 50 ml (one-quarter of a cup) of fluid.”

GM is not explaining in forensic detail exactly what circuit boards and conditions are required to reproduce sparks or fire in the battery pack. GM and NHTSA tried several times to replicate a fire in June that started three weeks after NHTSA smashed a Volt and stored it with its battery still charged.

Igniting another Volt battery in repeated side-impact tests was not at first an easy task, and it wasn’t until December that two crash tested stand-alone batteries showed how it’s done. Once that was understood, GM scrambled to put out the fire of public perception as fast as it could.

And to be sure, Barra confirmed GM quickly completed development and validation of its remedial measures, “thereby eliminating the chance for a post-crash electrical fire for this test condition.”

She then described the procedure GM dealers will offer Volt owners in its “Customer Satisfaction Program” beginning in February – it’s not a recall, thus not being done with federal oversight, and – the hope is – with less perceived stigma.

“First, we’re going to strengthen an existing portion of the vehicle’s safety structure that protects the battery pack in the event of a severe side collision,” Barra said. “The enhancements add to the robustness in protecting the battery and its coolant lines in the event of a severe side crash.”

GM installing a battery coolant sensor to monitor levels in the battery cooling system.

GM is adding a tamper-resistant bracket to the top of the battery coolant reservoir to prevent potential overfill.

Additional enhancements to the battery coolant system, include :

• Installing a sensor in the battery coolant system reservoir to monitor coolant levels.
• Adding a tamper resistant bracket to the top of the battery coolant reservoir to help prevent potential coolant overfill.

“These enhancements and modifications will address the concerns raised by the severe crash tests,” Barra said. “There are no changes to the Volt battery pack or cell chemistry as a result of these actions. We have tested the Volt’s battery system for more than 285,000 hours, or 25 years, of operation. We’re as confident as ever that the cell design is among the safest on the market.”

The company added that the Volt is a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and has earned other safety awards from key third-party organizations.

Although no fires like those created by NHTSA have been reported by Volt drivers, Barra said GM is now “choosing to go the extra mile to ensure our customers’ peace of mind.”

When the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant reopens Jan. 23, these same updates will be baked into all new Volts, GM said.

GM engineers fit structural modifications to further protect the Volt’s battery pack. The enhancements more evenly distribute crash energy following a severe side impact.

If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway

GM Spokesman Rob Peterson said when the fix was designed last month, four more Volts were crash tested between Dec. 9-21 with NHTSA, and the company determined it was an effective remediation to perceived issues.

Peterson said the Chevrolet dealership repair will require about six hours labor time, depending on scheduling customers might be without their car for a day, and naturally, it’s at no cost.

Undisclosed is how much it will cost GM, and Peterson said the company normally does not divulge these kinds of internal costs.

As it is, the fix does not appear overly involved, and is in all likelihood inexpensive in the scheme of things.

Observers note that GM needs to put this issue behind it, restore any lost confidence in its halo car and nascent market, and prepare to sell as many as 60,000 more Volts worldwide this year.

When asked, Peterson reiterated this move by GM is strictly of its own free will and said he was unaware of any discussions by NHTSA urging GM to do what it has, or saying a recall or other actions would follow if GM did not act proactively.

Nope, what some characterize as its bending over backwards to please is what you can expect from the New GM in general, and as an owner of the Volt in particular, Peterson said.

It’s about customer satisfaction

GM is presenting how it responded to NHTSA’s investigation as merely in keeping with its game plan to usher electrified vehicles into the mainstream.

As we reported months ago, Peterson said GM is grateful for its early adopters, wants to take very special care of them, intends to see the Volt accepted into the next round of buyers, and to keep this momentum going.

A GM engineer fits structural modifications to further protect the battery pack.

It’s a multi-stage approach heading toward mainstream, has been GM’s stated policy, yet it is still being overlooked by the likes of GM dealer and U.S. Rep Mike Kelly who may know this, but still decries lack of mainstream acceptance out of the starting gate.

But GM can only do what it can, and the primary fact is it has designed a well-regarded first extended-range electric vehicle, and is intent on backing it up.

“We’re trying to make clear to customers that their satisfaction is a priority,” Peterson said.

Peterson further clarified that not only is the battery update voluntary, GM was also not required to offer loaners to worried Volt drivers and even to buy back Volts after NHTSA’s investigation was opened.

Some have alleged GM has done what it has because secretly it knew there were bigger technical issues to cover itself against, but Peterson said this is not the case.

The big-enough issue is the same as it ever was – redeeming GM’s name from the bad rap it got in some quarters over the years, and proving the Volt is viable.

“People’s impressions of General Motors go back years and it will take time and it will take deeds – not necessarily words – to prove that having satisfied customers is what we’re out to achieve,” Peterson said.

He noted that the latest Consumer Reports’ 93-percent rating for the Volt makes it number one in owner satisfaction and exceeds even a runner up from Porsche costing twice as much.

This Volt rating also exceeds those for GM’s own premium brand, and we asked if GM is giving “Cadillac levels of service” as it launches the Volt?

Peterson said he would not compare service given to Chevy customers against GM’s own brand in a literal sense, but if we wanted to say it is “Cadillac level” – in a generic sense, using the name “as an adjective” – he said he could agree to that.”

Here at KARL Chevrolet in New Canaan, we continue to believe that the Chevy Volt is the perfect car for a large percentage of Connecticut residents who are looking to dramatically reduce their vehicle operating costs, work towards energy independence, and still drive a comfortable, safe, luxurious, sporty, stylish and fun vehicle.  The Chevy Volt is all that and more…. but the only way you can truly comprehend it is to come in and take a drive for yourself.  We invite you to stop in at any time and allow our staff the oportunity to provide you with a personalized tour of all that a Chevy Volt can offer.

If you are simply ready to find the perfect Volt for you,