By SHARON TERLEP
DETROIT—For the past several years, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting the development of electric cars. Now regulators are investigating whether the big battery packs used by one of them pose a safety risk in the event of an accident.
Last week, U.S. auto-safety officials opened an investigation into General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Volt after two crash tests of the electric car caused its battery to spark or catch fire. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted the tests because of an incident this spring in which a Volt battery damaged in a crash test caught fire three weeks later, igniting the car that contained it and three other vehicles in a NHTSA facility.
General Motors said on Monday it will offer loaner vehicles to Chevrolet Volt owners to address safety worries amid a U.S. investigation into post-crash fires involving the vehicles. Sharon Terlep has details on Lunch Break.
Meanwhile, in a change to its previous stance, the agency is no longer saying it is certain that battery-powered cars are as safe as their conventional counterparts. NHTSA said, however, that it has no specific reason to be concerned about vehicles other than the Volt.
Both NHTSA and GM said Volt owners shouldn't worry, as the fires occurred days after a crash and not on impact, and they pointed out that gasoline-powered cars are at risk of catching fire when damaged. More than 250,000 vehicle fires occur each year in the U.S., causing around 500 deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
But the new worries could be a blow to the Obama administration's efforts to get electric vehicles on the road in mass numbers if NHTSA's investigation turns up additional risks. And they could be bad news for GM. The Volt, one of the last vestiges of the old GM, has been at the center of the auto maker's effort to reinvent its image.
"It's difficult to know how consumers will react. People who don't do the math will say, 'Oh no, batteries are dangerous,' " said Tom Saxon, a board members of Plug In America, which promotes electric cars. "Even though a gasoline car is more likely to catch fire, they think an electric car is more dangerous because they aren't used to it."
NHTSA officials are asking all electric-car makers for information on engineering details and steps recommended to ensure safety following an accident. A major goal is making sure vehicles are handled properly by first responders to a crash.
"The agency is concerned that damage to the Volt's batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire," NHTSA said in a statement Friday.
GM says the Volt has been extensively tested and is safe. The Volt fires occurred at minimum a week after the tests. In a real-world crash, safety procedures call for the battery to be disconnected and the car taken to a repair shop, not to be left sitting, said GM spokesman Greg Martin.
"We need to give consumers credit that most are able to discern what poses a risk," he added.
The questions revolve around the powerful lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars like the Volt and Nissan Motor Co.'s Leaf. Next year Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. plan to start selling electric vehicles that use such batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries have been the focus of recalls in consumer electronics. Personal-computer makers including Apple Inc. and Dell Inc. were forced to recall millions of laptop batteries over fears they could overheat and catch fire. Earlier this year, NHTSA Chief Counsel Kevin Vincent said the auto industry isn't certain about whether the vehicles are safe after a crash.
President Barack Obama has called for putting a million electric vehicles on the road by 2025. New fuel-economy requirements adopted this summer by his administration essentially require auto makers to broadly adopt electric vehicles over the next decade. NHTSA expects about 70% of battery-powered cars will feature lithium-ion batteries in the next decade.
"The fundamental tendency of lithium-ion batteries is that they are inherently unstable," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of car-research firm Edmunds.com.
In the latest NHTSA tests, the agency intentionally damaged the battery compartment and ruptured the vehicle's coolant line to replicate the initial incident in May. Though the fire in that incident occurred weeks after a crash, the latest incidents happened within a week of one, the agency said.
In similar tests on Nissan's Leaf, the vehicle's battery survived the crash undamaged, according to two people familiar with the testing. The Leaf battery is encased in steel, which may have helped prevent damage, these people said. Also, the Leaf, unlike most electric vehicles, doesn't require coolant.
"People have this image of laptop batteries overheating, but [lithium-ion batteries in cars] are quite different," said Bob Yakushi, Nissan's senior manager of auto safety engineering. "The perceptions need to be clarified."
Like the Volt, the battery system in Ford's Focus Electric, due out next year, relies on a cooling system to keep its temperature down. Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood declined to say whether the Volt incident will spur additional testing on the Focus. "We are addressing the safety issues our customers care about," he said.
Toyota spokesman John Hanson said he isn't sure whether the auto maker will conduct additional tests with the Volt in mind. "We have a lot of confidence in our battery technology," he said.
NHTSA says electric car drivers should take the same precaution as drivers of traditional vehicles in the case of an accident: move a safe distance away from a crashed vehicle and get the car or truck to a repair shop.