Why Didn’t NHTSA Immediately Report Chevy Volt Fire?

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Volt fire photoOver five months ago, a Chevy Volt that had been crash tested weeks earlier and was sitting in a government storage facility burst into flames. The story was just recently reported by news outlets like the New York Times, a source that certainly can not be accused of being on a right wing witch hunt to discredit electric cars. The Chevy Volt has been very controversial with questions raised regarding the rush to electrify America's auto fleet at the expense of taxpayers, particularly when the main player in the field is an entry of Government Motors. The latest question that has yet to be asked is, "why did NHTSA delay reporting the spontaneously combusting Volt?"

Just days before the announcement of the government's burning Volt, a story surfaced on a garage fire in NC involving a Chevy Volt. An initial attempt at secrecy by the reporting news sources failed. The story simply claimed that a plug-in vehicle was being charged in the vicinity of the fire origination. The inference that a Volt was involved had to be made after General Motors entered the investigation. An earlier story on Chevy Volt fires involved a CT garage fire. The Chevy Volt suspected in that fire reignited days after the fire was out and GM commandeered the investigation from local officials. No specific source in the CT incident has been blamed for the fire and speculation pointed to a homemade plug-in vehicle that had been in use for years (without a problem) in the garage before the arrival of the Volt. In fairness, no conclusive evidence has been found in either incident as to what caused the fires.

It is likely that the NC fire prompted a cautious response from NHTSA as they finally realized that the "S" in their acronym stood for "Safety" and any additional fire issues that arise in the Chevy Volt would bring into question their decision not to immediately notify the public about their burning Volt. The damage to GM and the Obama Administration if they try and downplay any fire hazards for the Volt only to have someone be injured or killed in an incident would be devastating. In the past, NHTSA seemed to err on the side of safety, as they publicly lambasted Toyota for a perceived unintended acceleration problem. An investigation cleared Toyota of the charges but sales were hurt just as GM was trying to persuade the public that they were on their way to a successful turnaround at the time of its IPO. The response to the Chevy Volt fires differs drastically from that of the Toyota incident.

The statement coming out of NHTSA is, "Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles," the agency went on to say. "In fact, all vehicles - both electric and gasoline-powered - have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash." Wow, nothing like an unbiased opinion. And how about Consumer Reports, an organization which is supposed to be concerned with consumer safety? Although they also seemed to err on the side of safety in the past, such as when they buried the Suzuki brand with accusations of rollover risks or inaccurately condemned some child car seats, they seem to be taking a soft stance with the Volt fires. From CR piece responding to Volt fires, "As with any new technology, indeed any safety concern, it is imperative to follow all manufacturer-recommended safety precautions. The public has had more than 100 years to adapt to the safety requirements of gasoline, an inherently dangerous fuel. Now the challenge is to develop the same awareness for electrified and electric cars." CR was quick to give the Volt a recommended rating, despite limited data on reliability. Would CR pull its recommendation until further investigation was complete if this were a situation that involved a competitor of Government Motors?

The predictable responses to the Volt fires are coming in with headlines stating. "Federal testers may have caused Chevy Volt fire." Yeah, they caused the fire by crashing the vehicle. I wonder if there were any vehicles parked near the Volt that will also be blamed for the fire; maybe one sporting a Republican bumper sticker and built in a non-UAW shop. And of course, anyone wanting an unbiased investigation into the Volt fires will be accused of having a right wing agenda.

GM has placed the blame on NHTSA for not following "protocol" for Chevy Volt accidents. According to GM, the coolant needs to be drained from a Volt involved in an accident along with discharging the battery. The NHTSA statement for procedures for Volt fires is, "Use copious amounts of water if fire is present or suspected" and "fire can occur for a considerable period after a crash." The agency says damaged vehicles should be kept in an open area rather than an enclosed building or garage and away from other vehicles and tow-truck drivers or salvage-yard operators should contact the vehicle's manufacturer rather than attempt to discharge the battery themselves.

Keep damaged vehicles in an open area and away from other vehicles? Why not just add to the protocol having someone scream "fire in the hole!" every 30 minutes? Look, the assertion that the Chevy Volt should not be assumed to be a fire hazard before investigations are complete is logical. But it is also logical to want transparent reporting on the Chevy Volt, particularly involving safety concerns. It is reasonable to expect NHTSA and GM to immediately notify the public of safety protocol that can save lives, even if Chevy Volts ultimately are cleared of being at fault for the initial cause of any fires they were involved in. Also, the additional procedures needed to be followed in Volt accidents diminishes the value of the vehicle and raises the costs for fire, rescue and towing operations, some of which will surely be at the expense of taxpayers. And for what benefit?

According to the original Bloomberg report on the NHTSA Volt fire, LMC Automotive, a forecasting firm based in Oxford, England, predicts electric vehicles will make up 1 percent of the U.S. car market in 2020. Is having 1% of America's auto fleet operating on electricity 10 years from now worth the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent on the quest? How much is this really going to lessen foreign oil dependence? The wasteful spending is being supported by the same people who dismissed suggestions for additional drilling in America because it would take years to get the oil to market. But having 1% of cars running on coal in ten years is a worthy cause?

Our government's vested interest in GM and the Chevy Volt brings into question actions by other government agencies (specifically, of the Executive Branch) like NHTSA when it comes to reporting safety concerns like the Volt fire. Meanwhile, costly green initiatives like the Obama Administration's attempt to electrify America's auto fleet are doing little to benefit America. Billions of dollars are being spent at a time that our country can not afford it. The beneficiaries will continue to be cronies that become rich at the expense of taxpayers while politicians get their return in the form of lobbyists' contributions. The green initiatives folly should be put in check, it is now not a matter of ideology, but of common sense.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.