General Motors has stepped up its campaign to reassure customers about the safety of the Chevrolet Volt, its first serious foray into the electric car market.
GM’s chief executive officer Dan Akerson said Thursday that the company will buy back a Volt from any customer worried about the safety of the vehicle, a step further than GM’s offer earlier in the week to provider temporary loaner vehicles to Volt owners.
Worries have surfaced after Volt side-impact crash tests, where the subject cars’ battery packs caught fire – not immediately, but days after the tests were complete. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last week it would start an investigation into the battery’s safety. GM said no Volts involved in real-world accidents have caught fire.
Mr. Akerson told the Associated Press that the batteries are safe, but he wants to keep customers happy. He said GM would recall all of the Volts now on the road, if necessary, and repair them once the problem is identified.
GM Canada spokeswoman Faye Roberts said in an interview that the company-wide policy is that loaner vehicles will be offered to any Volt owners who want them, and only in exceptional circumstances would GM actually buy back one of the cars.
“I think [Mr. Akerson]was talking about an individual rather than a broader policy,” she said. “That program of making loaner vehicles hasn’t changed. It is still in place.” There is no formal process for a buyback, she added.
The loaner-vehicle program is available to Volt owners in Canada as well as south of the border.
In the United States, about 6,000 Volts have been sold so far. In Canada, only 243 Volts were purchased by the end of November, Ms. Roberts said. Only a handful of people on either side of the border have asked for loaner cars to temporarily replace their Volts, she said.
If they do ask for a loaner, the Volt owners will keep the alternate vehicle “until there is a resolution of the issue,” she said. “Either there is a decision that changes to the battery are required – which is what the research is [looking]into – or there is some other solution, or the situation is resolved in some other fashion.”
GM has said it will not release the Volt in Europe, where it will carry the Opel name, until the safety issues are resolved.
The plug-in Volt runs primarily on an electric motor but can be kept charged with a small gasoline engine. Concerns about the safety of the hybrid threaten both GM’s reputation and the momentum behind the adoption of a variety of new automotive technologies.
“This puts GM and all of the [companies making]other plug-ins, hybrids, and lithium-ion battery products ... in a bit of a pickle,” said auto analyst Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J.
Mr. Akerson needed to take action “to make sure that the well isn’t poisoned” for GM and all the other electric-car makers, Mr. Phillippi said.
Because there are so few Volts on the streets, offering a buyback or a loaner is not going to cost the company a lot of money, he said, but it is a necessary move to maintain GM’s reputation. The company had to be unequivocal that it will deal with the problem without hesitation, he said. “They are taking a very, very pro-active approach.”