The Learning Curve on Electric Car Safety

After a crash tested Chevy Volt burned in a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration storage facility three weeks following the crash test, that agency is now working with automakers to possibly come up with rules to protect people that handle electric vehicles after a wreck.

The Detroit Free Press has reported that NHTSA is looking into issuing new safety rules for handling EVs with lithium-ion batteries after collisions. The electrolyte used in today’s Li-Ion batteries are is flammable. During the test, crashing the Volt sideways into a telephone pole at 20 mph, a piece of metal perforated the battery pack possibly causing a leak of those flammable materials. Then the car sat on the storage lot for three weeks without the battery being discharged and it’s possible that a spark ignited the electrolyte. Internally, GM protocols call for discharging the battery in the event of a serious collision. Every Volt has GM’s On-Star service and in the event of a collision serious enough to activate the airbags, Chevy is notified and dispatches a team to investigate the wrecked Volt and discharge the battery.

The Volt response team is one reason why information about discharging was not shared with NHTSA. GM’s procedures were in place for real world cars, not cars at testing facilities. Apparently, nobody at GM thought to tell NHTSA and nobody at NHTSA thought to ask GM about special procedures for their extended range EV.

While this was a test, in the real world first and second responders have to deal with damaged Volts. Rob Peterson, who handles press relations for the Volt told me that the main concerns for first responders are to avoid electrocution and isolate the battery, not discharging the power pack. Fire risk from the battery pack is a secondary risk to first responders. They need to know where not to cut, and how to disconnect the battery pack. GM is confident that the Volt’s battery is collision safe and that your Volt is not going to go up in flames while you wait for the wrecker. This one collision related fire with a Volt (GM and NHTSA have both done many crash tests on the Volt and there have been real world collisions as well) started three weeks after the crash.

GM has worked with emergency agencies to instruct them in how to electrically isolate the batteries. In real world Volt collisions, once the batteries have been isolated by first responders, the Volt crash response teams have been taking care of discharging the batteries. While that system may work with the few thousand Volts on the road today, if GM succeeds at selling 40,000 or more Volts a year, they’re going to have to work more diligently with second responders, like tow truck operators and people working in salvage yards to inform them on the need to discharged the batteries. According to Peterson, GM has indeed been working with trade and industry groups to educate those people, building on almost a century of the company working with the auto service and salvage industries. In conjunction with the National Fire Protection Association, GM has given over 10,000 first responders virtual training on EV safety at EVSafetyTraining.org. You can read the Volt’s first responders’ guide here. Also, GM is rushing to make a battery draining tool more widely available to dealers and other second responders. Having welded a screwdriver to a chassis bleeding off current from an audio amplifier’s power supply capacitors, I can only visualize that GM’s official battery draining tool is a very very large ceramic resistor.

So while nobody’s been endangered, and while GM has worked hard to educate first responders about the Volt’s unique dangers, GM and the rest of the auto industry could have been more proactive in educating second responders on the the need to discharge EV batteries in the event of a serious collision, now that a number of carmakers are using Li-Ion batteries in their hybrids and EVs. NHTSA’s suggested rule making should make sure that education gets done. If that’s the case, then this Volt fire will end up being a positive thing.

It’s curious, though, that NHTSA, an agency whose charter is about safety, and whose crash test facilities themselves undoubtedly have rigorous safety procedures, did not already institute special procedures itself for discharging EV’s batteries after crash testing, regardless of whether or not GM informed them of the protocol. EVs are a new thing and one would think that when NHTSA is testing any new technologies, that they’d have a thorough safety analysis before the actual crash test. In addition to any new rules for automakers and those who handle EVs after they are wrecked, I think the NHTSA should reexamine its own safety procedures particularly regarding EVs.

Perhaps the wisest thing that one can say about this situation is that electric cars are indeed a new thing (or at least new after a hiatus of almost a century) and with any new thing there is a learning curve. GM is learning how to educate people about the Volt and NHTSA is learning how to test them safely.

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