Long a dream of environmentalists, and long a laughing-stock among car enthusiasts because of lame designs (e.g., GM’s EV1 and a long litany of goofy looking vehicles that look like a cross-breed between golf carts and toys), electric vehicles (EVs) are finally starting to make a real impact in the mass-market auto marketplace.
Of all the electric vehicles, the most prominent is the Chevy Volt, which is a really good looking car with pretty impressive performance (range, acceleration and fuel economy).
However, a negative news item about the Volt is starting to gain a little momentum: that the batteries are prone to fires. Over the summer, a Volt caught fire at a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) facility a full three weeks after a crash test. And, more recently, a Volt being charged in a home garage in North Carolina was involved in a fire.
Notwithstanding the possibility of misinformation — it now seems that the latter fire was not caused by the Volt, but started elsewhere in the garage, according to the local fire marshal — nevertheless there’s high potential for the Volt and all EVs to be stained and tarred with the perception that they are unsafe fire hazards.
This stems from the use of lithium-ion batteries — which offer high energy and power density as is critical for non-stationary applications, but also have a propensity to burn. Indeed, this was a serious issue a few years ago for laptop computers — and while that concern largely faded away, it came back into focus last week after an iPhone caught fire on an Australian commercial flight, and now threatens the EV sector before it can gain solid market traction.
Of course, no-one’s claiming that gasoline-powered vehicles aren’t prone to fires either. Indeed, between the flammability and the toxic nature of the fuel, it’s hard to imagine the gasoline-powered auto we have taken for granted for decades being approved by regulators now if it were just being introduced today.
However, gasoline vehicles have not been generally known to spontaneously combust when standing still, either.
The last thing that the EV sector needs is a Hindenburg image. The car makers and the battery makers in the EV arena need to tend to this issue, immediately. The quicker-than-normal response of GM, offering loaner cars and the possibility of buy-backs to Volt owners concerned about safety issues, indicates how urgent the situation is.