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USA: The Volt Fires You Never Heard About

Last May, the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration crash tested a series of Chevrolet Volts. The cars were slammed into barriers or struck broadside to simulate highway accidents in an effort to see what, if any, physical harm would be suffered by passengers. When the tests were completed, NHTSA gave the Volt their highest safety rating.

The damaged test cars, which would be considered “totaled” by any insurance company, were hauled off and put in shortage, one of them stacked upside-down on its roof. Three weeks later, the car caught fire in the storage facility, destroying itself and an unspecified number of other vehicles. None of the other crashed Volts caught fire, which gave researchers the opportunity to investigate the cause of the first fire, which they did in mid-November.

But four months before the NHTSA crash tests, three other Volts were also smashed to oblivion; and those are the fires we never heard about. The organization doing its own set of crash tests in February 2011 was the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Early in 2011, IIHS acquired three Chevrolet Volts from GM and conducted its own series of collision tests: front impact, side impact, and roof crush. Again, all three cars were totaled. No one was going to get in these cars and drive away in them, much less park them in their garages. The only way these car would move would be on the back of a tow truck.

What differentiates IIHS’s tests from NHTSAs is that the battery compartment was never breached. None of the cars caught fire. In fact, one of the Volts has been on public display at the IIHS in Arlington, Va since July.

I decided to call Russ Rader, IIHS’s Communications VP after I noticed that Institutes’s name on the side impact sled in the above photograph. Why, I asked him, hadn’t we heard about their fires?

The reason, he explained, is because there weren’t any. As part of their crash test procedure, the Institute drains each crash test vehicle’s fuel tank, replacing its volatile gasoline with a inflammable fuel simulant. Like NHTSA, their technicians did not discharge the car’s 16kWh battery pack. All three cars were tested with energized batteries; the aim being, of course, to see what would happen. Remember, this is weeks before the ill-fated NHTSA test in Michigan.

Because the battery compartment hadn’t been compromised nor the coolant line ruptured, the cars remained essentially inert for months in storage. It was only in July 2011, when IIHS wanted to put one of the cars on display, that GM sent a technician to discharge the battery. Today, December 29, 2011, that car sits on display across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital in Arlington where anyone can see it, including those pent on using the Volt fires as a political cudgel, including certain Republican presidential candidates and conservative commentators.


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