A new challenge for electric cars — fire

Electric cars — already on a steep climb because of price and distance anxiety — will have a greater commercial challenge if consumers fear their car could catch fire. So that the news that a General Motors Volt burst into flames in a testing-center parking lot is going to raise alarm bells. In fact, the ...

Karen Bleier  AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier AFP/Getty Images

Electric cars -- already on a steep climb because of price and distance anxiety -- will have a greater commercial challenge if consumers fear their car could catch fire. So that the news that a General Motors Volt burst into flames in a testing-center parking lot is going to raise alarm bells. In fact, the incident is not reason for distress-- the vehicle was undergoing crash tests, and as GM points out, any car is subject to fire should a crash be sufficiently severe. The important thing -- and the one that GM will have to figure out -- is that it caught fire three weeks after the latest test crash.

The fire occurred back in May and has come to light only now through press reports, such as this one from Bloomberg. The Volt was parked at a government testing center after undergoing a series of side impacts. Investigators tracked the fire to the lithium-ion battery.

This reminds one of the laptop fires of just a few years ago. At the time, Sony had to work fast and recall millions of batteries and laptops since consumers were unlikely to countenance a fire as they worked, not to mention how, say, airlines would respond if they regarded your laptop as a potential weapon.

Electric cars — already on a steep climb because of price and distance anxiety — will have a greater commercial challenge if consumers fear their car could catch fire. So that the news that a General Motors Volt burst into flames in a testing-center parking lot is going to raise alarm bells. In fact, the incident is not reason for distress– the vehicle was undergoing crash tests, and as GM points out, any car is subject to fire should a crash be sufficiently severe. The important thing — and the one that GM will have to figure out — is that it caught fire three weeks after the latest test crash.

The fire occurred back in May and has come to light only now through press reports, such as this one from Bloomberg. The Volt was parked at a government testing center after undergoing a series of side impacts. Investigators tracked the fire to the lithium-ion battery.

This reminds one of the laptop fires of just a few years ago. At the time, Sony had to work fast and recall millions of batteries and laptops since consumers were unlikely to countenance a fire as they worked, not to mention how, say, airlines would respond if they regarded your laptop as a potential weapon.

GM says that the problem surrounds the crash tests. The federal examiners failed to follow a set of procedures regarding disengagement of the battery after a severe crash, the company says. The federal agency itself reinforced a need for firemen, police and ambulance drivers to understand the specific safety protocol for electric vehicles.

The lithium-ion battery has come a long way, and that the Volt fire did not occur while in use is comforting, but only to a limit. All things being equal, one would not be at ease with the image of one’s car bursting into flames while parked in the garage. An ongoing federal investigation will be monitored by the host of carmakers around the world piling in to the electric car race.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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