Troubling NHTSA/GM Response to Chevy Volt Fires

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Some troubling inconsistencies are arising regarding General Motors and NHTSA's response to the crash-tested Chevy Volt fires first reported a few weeks ago. NHTSA and GM delayed informing the public of the initial Volt incident that occurred about six months ago until recently. According to an early NY Times piece on the exploding Volt, NHTSA and GM claimed that they were unable to replicate the fire that occurred at the time. In fact, according to a CNN Money piece that ran when the story first broke, GM spokesman Greg Martin stated that the Volt battery pack was subjected to more than 300,000 safety tests.

About two weeks after these statements, NHTSA announced that in three more recent tests on the Volts, two caught fire or emitted sparks and smoke. It is unbelievable that NHTSA and GM ran multiple tests after the first fire without incident only to now have two out of three Volts replicate the original problem. A group called Safety Research and Strategies, Inc (SRS) is not buying it either and reported on the new Volt debacle.

There are many issues with the response by both NHTSA and GM to the original Volt fire. From the SRS report, no documentation exists for original Volt tests. They also report that "the lead investigator in this sensitive investigation is a mechanical engineer fresh out of college with no apparent electrical engineering background or experience. She joined the agency one month before the Volt ignited." It seems that NHTSA and GM would prefer to have a green engineer (in more ways than one) in charge of the Volt investigation.

SRS also rightly points out that it is inappropriate for NHTSA to give a "sales pitch" for the Volt as it did when it stated, "NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles have incredible potential to save consumers money at the pump, help protect the environment, create jobs and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on oil,"  If having an agency of the Executive Branch of government investigating President Obama's favorite car isn't cause enough for concern, the biased statements predetermining the value in the Chevy Volt should confirm that there is no way that NHTSA can properly investigate the safety issues. Just look at the NHTSA statement as quoted by CNN Money, "Let us be clear: NHTSA does not believe electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than other vehicles." How can an agency that has predetermined that there is no greater risks to electric vehicles impartially carry out the important investigations?

The initial response from GM on the NHTSA Volt fire placed blame on the agency itself for the original fire. GM claimed that NHTSA did not follow safety protocol. The fact that, at the time, no safety protocol existed for the vehicle gives insight into how Government Motors spins facts to the point where it becomes outright deception. And NHTSA's lack of transparency along with conflicts of interests and predeterminations of EV safety gives evidence that they are not capable of giving a fair assessment of the Volt incidents.

Members of Congress, along with consumer safety advocacy groups and journalists, should keep a close eye on the Chevy Volt investigation. SRS's concerns should be addressed. Questions need to be answered regarding NHTSA and GM's delay in reporting the first Volt fire that could have put the public at risk and statements that subsequent tests done could not replicate the problem. SRS is also right that transparency is needed and documentation should be produced. The Chevy Volt and Government Motors should stop getting a free pass from congressional leaders and the mainstream media and more oversight and scrutiny should be given to NHTSA which is failing in its role as transportation safety advocate for the American public.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.