NHTSA Launches Investigation into Lithium-Ion Auto Battery Safety

According to four individuals familiar with the situation, U.S. safety regulators have launched a probe into the safety of lithium auto batteries following a fire that erupted in a Chevrolet Volt.

In addition to General Motors Company (which makes the Volt) Nissan Motor Company and Ford Motor Company have reportedly been approached by investigators. Both automakers currently use lithium ion batteries in their all-electric and hybrid vehicles.

The fire that sparked the investigation occurred in a Chevrolet Volt three weeks after it had been subject to side-impact testing at a National Highway Safety Administration testing facility. According to NHTSA officials, they were able to determine that the lithium-ion battery was the source of the fire that erupted in the Volt. They said the fire was of sufficient intensity that it also burned other vehicles parked in the immediate vicinity of the Volt.

The NHTSA is also investigating a separate incident involving a fire that erupted in a residential garage where a Chevrolet Volt was being charged.

General Motor’s chief engineer for electric vehicles, Jim Federico, said, “I want to make this very clear: the Volt is a safe car. We are working cooperatively with NHTSA as it completes its investigation. However, NHTSA has stated that based on available data, there’s no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gas-powered car.”

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt was the first mass-marketed plug-in electric vehicle to be sold in the U.S. Its lithium-ion batteries are supplied by South Korea’s LG Chem Ltd.

The world’s best-selling hybrid, the Toyota Prius, uses nickel-metal batteries. However, Toyota does plan to use lithium ion batteries in an upcoming plug-in version of the Prius and an electric version of its popular RAV4 SUV.

In a statement, the NHTSA said, “As manufacturers continue to develop vehicles of any kind — electric, gasoline, or diesel — it is critical that they take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of drivers and first responders both during and after a crash.”

The agency also said, “Based on the available data NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, all vehicles — both electric and gasoline-powered — have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash.”

General Motors’ spokesman Greg Martin said the automaker does not believe that electric vehicles pose any greater risk to motorists than conventional gas- and diesel-powered vehicles. He said the company has spent nearly 300,000 hours testing the Volt and has concluded that it is safe.

Nissan spokeswoman Katherine Zachary said, “The Nissan Leaf battery pack has been designed with multiple safety systems in place to help ensure its safety in the real world. All of our systems have been thoroughly tested to ensure real-world performance. To date, the more than 8,000 Nissan Leafs driving on the U.S. roads have performed without reported incident.”

The Leaf and Volt each received the NHTSA’s top crash-test safety rating earlier this year, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave both vehicles a “good” rating this past April.

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