Driving It Home

Electric car setback the talk of Tokyo

TOKYO — Special to The Globe and Mail

2012 Chevrolet Volt (General Motors)

Electric vehicle owners and budding EV suitors worried about battery fires might want to consider just exactly what U.S. regulators did to put a metaphorical match to the Chevrolet Volt.

Yes, a Volt battery pack did catch fire at government storage facility, but only after having been damaged a week earlier in a crash test by regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA.

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You read that correctly. The Volt that caught fire in June had been sitting around for a week after a pranging. NHTSA says the fire happened as a result of a test designed to test the stability of its battery in a post-accident scenario. The New York Times has reported that NHTSA has said another battery pack emitted smoke and sparks after a similar test.

The Times added that NHTSA says there has been no evidence of fire problems in real-world crashes involving the Volt. But in a statement, NHTSA said it is “concerned that damage to the Volt’s batteries as part of the three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire.”

Pause for a moment and consider what might happen if NHTSA crashed a gasoline-powered vehicle with a full gas tank, then let it sit around for a week, waiting for a small leak to turn into smoke or fire. You would not be unreasonable to conclude that is at least a somewhat silly test.

That is, after a crash, most of us would check to make sure the gas tank was intact and not leaking in any way. If any reasonable person suspected even the slightest tank damage, surely he or she would take the car to a dealer or body shop for a checkup. Who wouldn’t do the same with a Volt or a Nissan LEAF or any other EV, post-crash?

General Motors, of course, has been stunned. The Volt is a symbol of the technological expertise that is the centre of the auto maker’s current turnaround. GM officials are rushing to assure owners and potential owners. They are being told that their Volts are safe and GM will do all that’s necessary to ensure that continued safety. GM is also moving fast to minimize any owner inconvenience.

Here at the Tokyo Motor Show, where EVs dot the stands of almost every major auto maker and many minor ones, engineers on hand admitted that the chemistry of lithium ion batteries such as those in the LEAF and Volt can be volatile. Problems can occur when the battery pack is ruptured or overheated. Millions of laptop computer owners know this. They’ve seen their computers recalled because of fire worries with lithium ion batteries.

But no one drives a laptop in the real world, and no one crashes or crash tests a computer or a wristwatch, either. It is a different story for the Volt and the LEAF and EVs of their ilk. The so-called “post-crash” issue associated with EVs is now coming into focus as a result.

Nissan executive vice-president Mitsuhiko Yamashita, the company’s chief engineer, was quick to point out that the LEAF’s lithium ion battery pack is air cooled, not water cooled as is the Volt’s. In a storage facility, the LEAF’s batteries theoretically would remain cool all on their own thanks to naturally circulating fresh air. That minimizes heat-related problems in a post-crash test. Yamashita also said Nissan has been in detailed talks with U.S. regulators regarding the safety of the LEAF’s batteries. So is the LEAF 100 per cent safe?

“An engineer never is 100 per cent certain of everything,” he replied, “But let’s say we’re in very good shape” when it comes to battery safety.

The auto makers here in Tokyo were in universal agreement about the future of EVs. Battery cars are coming and there is no stopping them. Government regulators have made sure of this by passing and pushing ahead with fuel economy and emissions regulations essentially designed to foster the growth of EVs.

Even as one group of regulators is picking EVs as the winning “green” technology, other regulators are lighting up safety issues with tests that at least on the surface strike some as silly and perhaps even unfair. It is possible to argue that the latter are undermining the future of EVs by scaring customers and potential customers about safety issues.

So, how would you like to be a car company dealing with government regulators – and not just those in the U.S., but all around the world?

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