Perception and reality are not always the same thing. The internet allows people around the world to find out about things as soon as they happen, often with photos or video. On whole that’s a good thing but it also can give disproportionate attention to events that are not that significant. Take car fires, for example. Two cars at the polar extremes of cost, refinement and technology, the Tata Nano and the Ferrari 458, now have the reputation as being fire hazards all because a small number of vehicle fires resulted in a large amount of internet traffic. A third car, the Chevy Volt, didn’t even need to have its photo taken burning at the side of the road to be dubbed a fire hazard by pundits.
A fire starting in the battery of a Volt three weeks after it had been crash tested and rolled over by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration led to further investigations and a rush by General Motors to engineer additional crash protection for the Volt’s battery, all without a single vehicle fire in a Volt that was in actual use. Now compare the massive attention given to Volt’s supposed fire hazard to the minimal coverage given to the actual recall over concerns of a fire risk that was issued by BMW for 88,911 high performance Cooper S and John Cooper Works models of BMW’s MINI brand. While no owners of Volts had their cars go up in flames, according to NHTSA documentation 12 owners of turbocharged 2007 and 2008 MINIs had engine compartment fires. Five of those cars ended up being engulfed in flames and completely destroyed. According to BMW, the problem is in the printed circuit board that controls the auxiliary [electric] water pump that cools the turbocharger. Apparently “electro migration” is the culprit. I believe that means that small bits of conductive metal migrate and create short circuits between the copper traces on the PC board.
That water pump runs after the car has been shut down, to keep the still hot and spinning turbo cool, and eight of the fires occurred while the cars were parked, with the ignition off. This is exactly the kind of scary scenario that critics of the Volt were hyping, a car starting on fire for no apparent reason. NHTSA says that the frequency of reports is increasing. While fires have only been reported in ’07 and ’08 model year MINIs, the recall covers 2001 through 2011 models.
I understand why the Volt fire issue got so much attention. The Volt is widely, though inaccurately, perceived as having been developed at the behest of the Obama administration, as a green car “payback” for the US government’s bailout of GM. The reality is that the Volt was well along its R&D path long before Mr. Obama took office in Feb. 2009. There is also the $7,500 tax credit for purchasers of the Volt and similar electric vehicles. Most Volt purchasers are of means and don’t really need the tax credit. So the Volt is going to have its critics and be under the microscope. Still, as the recall of the turbo MINIs show, regular gasoline powered cars can be a fire hazard.
Don’t expect any chicken little headlines about the MINI being a fire hazard, though, like you saw about the Volt. Perspective is in short supply when internet traffic is being chased.