General Motors has stepped up to the plate in order to avoid a potential public relations snafu with Chevrolet Volt owners. In the face of an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into the post-accident safety of lithium ion battery packs in electric and hybrid automobiles, the General has announced that it will offer any current Chevrolet Volt owner a "free GM vehicle loan" until the safety of the electric car has been vindicated.
The NHTSA investigation stems from a wrecked Chevrolet Volt that caught fire this past summer several weeks after it had undergone crash testing by the Administration. The fire, which occurred seemingly spontaneously, was eventually traced to the lithium ion battery pack that serves as the primary energy storage unit for the sedan. After follow-up tests were able to spark a second, similar conflagration, the NHTSA opened the books on an inquiry designed to research how well first responders, passengers and scrap yard operators are protected from injury when dealing with wrecked automobiles featuring this particular battery technology.
As previously reported by Autobytel, General Motors responded to the report of the initial fire at the NHTSA storage facility by claiming that personnel employed by the testing agency had not followed clearly-outlined post-crash battery storage and disposal procedures that come with every single Chevrolet Volt. GM in fact maintains a team charged with responding to accidents involving the Volt (after receiving notification through the sedan's OnStar telematics system) in order to assist with battery handling and draining. The incident at NHTSA is the first reported fire of any kind determined to be caused by the Volt, despite Chevrolet being aware of several accidents amongst the 5,300 vehicles it has sold so far in the United States. Like all vehicles on the American market, the Chevrolet Volt passed through an extensive set of safety and crash testing administered by the Administration, as well as independent groups, prior to being offered to customers.
General Motors is working hand in hand with NHTSA in order to assist with the investigation into lithium ion safety in any way possible. This includes the establishment of a team of engineering experts who will attempt to improve current battery disposal protocols and further reduce the risk of post-crash fires. GM is so far the only manufacturer of a lithium ion battery-equipped vehicle to make an offer to owners to replace their automobile pending the investigation which reaches across the industry and affects a number of different hybrid and battery-powered options.
Chevrolet is to be applauded for being willing to extend the loaner car olive branch to Volt owners across the country. It is worth keeping in mind that a quarter of a million gasoline-powered vehicles catch fire in automobile accidents each year in the United States, which adds some perspective to the current flap over battery safety. In a post-unintended acceleration recall world, automakers must remain ever vigilant to avoid mishandling potential safety issues in the eyes of both owners and potential customers.