Monday, June 11, 2012

The Volt Fire Myth, Debunked

In the lovely twittersphere, there are some 'uninformed' individuals, through apparent lack of intelligence, critical thinking ability, or ability to properly research an issue, that would just as soon spread lies about the Volt than tell the truth. And more interestingly enough, when approached to correct some of the flat out lies, they continue to refute evidence that is plainly visible and published for all to see. When I find a person like this, it becomes plainly obvious that they have no intent to see or report the truth, and will only give to their readers as much information as they dare as to not cast doubt on their preconceived and ill formed beliefs. While there is good debate to be had about electric cars, let’s have the debate on the real issues, not fictitious ones.

We will start out with a bold statement, and prove it below:

At the date of this blog posting, there have been NO CONSUMER FIRES CAUSED BY THE CHEVY VOLT, either in garages or as a result of an accident. The ONLY fires were a result of government testing, the majority of which was done in a manner to purposely incite a fire through non real world conditions (the battery pack was setup to fail).

Let's examine a few issues....

1) There were two (to my knowledge) fires in garages in the last year that happened to have Volts parked in the garage. As reported in my previous blog entry (Responsibility in Journalism), Matt Drudge has been one of the main culprits of linking, prior to any investigation, the Chevy Volt to the garage fire. In BOTH garage fires, the Volt was ruled out as the probable cause.

Regarding the Conneticutt home:

“It wasn’t the cars,” Barkhamsted Fire Marshal William Baldwin told regarding the cause of a fire at the Barkhamsted residence of Dee and Storm Connors.

Regarding the North Carolina home:

When news first came out regarding this incident, many believed the culprit behind this fire could be the Volt, but Iredell County chief deputy fire marshal Garland Cloer says; “the source of ignition seems to be from outside the area of the vehicles.”

So, there you have it. Two Fire Marshals have removed most to any doubt of the Volt being the cause. Let's also not forget these fires were investigated by MULTIPLE sources. Car companies, power companies, insurance companies. People that know a little bit about this stuff and they have ruled out the Volt as the cause. Duke Energy also ruled out the charging station.

Let's talk about the NHTSA fires... This is the one that really got a lot of press attention. Here is the summary of what happened in a Nut Shell:

1) NHTSA received Volts for collision testing, and performed these tests at their contractor's site (MGA Research).

2) They performed 4 crash tests on 4/20, 5/6, 5/11, and 5/12.

3) The car received 5 Star Frontal and Side Impact Crash ratings.

4) On June 6, NHTSA was informed by MGA that the Volt that was impacted THREE WEEKS prior had caught fire and was destroyed outside the testing facility.

5) Through an extensive and long investigation, they determined that the fire was caused when the battery casing was cracked during the last side impact test, and coolant meant to manage battery temperature leaked onto the battery, causing a short and a fire.  The coolant leaked, when as a part of the test to simulate a rollover, they rotate the car in the air 360 degrees (circulating the ruptured coolant).

6) On 9/21 they repeated the side test on another Volt to attempt to recreate the accident along with 360 degrees rotation. The attempt did NOT succeed in producing a fire.

7) A this point, NHTSA, along with other government agencies, worked to recreate a condition that would purposefully puncture the battery housing and cause a coolant leak. The only way they could do this was remove the batteries from the protective shell of the car, and impact JUST THE BATTERIES with the sled.  After the impact, they literally rotated these batteries, in air, a full 360 degrees, making sure that the coolant would make contact with all parts of the battery (simulated roll over).  They did this on 6 batteries. 2 of the batteries caught fire several days after the testing. So they ran tests on a car battery in a condition that would not be found with consumers, that wouldn't be found in the vast majority of accidents, and even after this, were only able to create fires on 1/3 of the batteries several days after the impact.

8) NHTSA monitored EVERY major Volt crash (airbags deployed), and found not a single incident where a crashed Volt started a fire.  They also investigated the garage fires mentioned above.

8) General Motors, aware of these issues, voluntarily made an enhancement to the cage surrounding the battery that would further reduce the likelihood of a fire.

9) NHTSA closed the investigation, citing the Volt as being no more flammable than any other car on the road, being comfortable with the enhancements made by General Motors.


Today, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed its safety defect investigation into the potential risk of fire in Chevy Volts that have been involved in a serious crash. Opened on November 25, the agency’s investigation has concluded that no discernible defect trend exists and that the vehicle modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts.

BTW.  Want to know how many cars actually DO catch on fire a year?  250,000 of them.  About 1% of all cars on the road.  And not a single one of them, to date, is electric.

Eventually, something will happen, and a Volt will catch fire.  That’s what happens with any machine where massive amounts of energy are stored.  But taken in context, it’s nothing spectacular or unnerving.  Electric vehicles are safe to own and drive, and are here to stay.


  1. On #4) it wasn't a storage facility, it was the side of an access road with three other vehicles parked infront and behind the damaged Volt. Even though damaged, the Volt had accumulated hydrogen in the cabin from the damaged battery, which fueled the explosion and the fire.

    The naked batteries that were damaged in #7) caught fire in a shed 6-7 days after the second battery test.

    Guess what I did after I read the NHTSA final reports?

    I bought a Volt.

  2. vdiv. I can't find evidence in the report that hydrogen was the cause. I didn't look too hard. If you can locate that, I will source it, but otherwise I don't want to include it.

    I will edit to make more clear that the fires in second round of tests were also delayed.


    I also bought a Volt in January.

  3. Oh, meant to say. Corrections noted and applied.

  4. Yeah, the reports do not directly mention hydrogen or any other gas emitted when the battery was penetrated. The report by GTL does talk about gas monitoring for methane, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and volatile organics, but the data was supplied elsewhere. Hydrogen is a byproduct of electrolysis, which would have occurred when the 50/50 water/glycol coolant was exposed to the energized cell electrodes. The reports talk about carbon/graphite deposits during the electrolysis tests meaning that hydrogen was released from the glycol and possibly the water molecules. Gas accumulated in the cabin and caused the rapid "pre-fire pressure event" to blow up the windshield/roof and expel the rearview mirror. Fire requires fuel, oxidizer (oxygen) and an ignition source (arcing from the damaged cell electrodes) and hydrogen would have provided the initial fuel for the fire.

  5. You might want to add this

    the URL title says it all

  6. I thought about that. Well aware of that accident. Will probably add it. Thanks!

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