Why the Chevy Volt's Fire Problem Is Actually a PR Problem

A government agency is investigating its safety after a test car caught on fire. Are consumers holding electric cars to a higher standard?

It’s a nightmare scenario. You’re driving along, and you swerve to avoid a car, a dog, a deer. The side of your car hits a narrow object, a tree or a pole, and before you know it, the car is rolling over. Shaken but unharmed, you take the car home and put the incident behind you. Three weeks later, your car, sitting docilely in the garage, bursts into flames.

It hasn’t happened in the real world, but after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tested the Chevy Volt on “the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision” last May, the electric vehicle's lithium-ion battery caught on fire three weeks later. Lithium burns hot, and the fire was strong enough to ignite neighboring cars. This month, the testing agency put a series of Volt batteries through an ordeal that would replicate the effects of a side-collision and rollover. One battery was fine. One sparked and smoked. On Thanksgiving, a third caught fire, and the agency opened an official investigation into the car’s safety.

In action movies, car regularly turn into fireballs. But it’s understandably uncomfortable for regular drivers to remember that each morning they’re getting into a pile of hot metal and explosive fuel. The dangers of an electric car and its chemical battery are different than those of a conventional vehicle, but green vehicles aren’t inherently more risky. They are a newfangled technology, though, and if consumers hear that the Volt can explode unexpectedly, it could turn them away from the product altogether.

Electric cars have a tenuous hold on American drivers. General Motors, which makes the Volt, has gone out of its way to market the Volt as a car for normal, everyday people who just want to save money, not super-greenies trying to save the planet. Still, the company has sold fewer Volts than it hoped to this year. (The Nissan Leaf, which lacks the Volt’s backup gas engine, has sold almost twice as well, though.) And there are plenty of pundits waiting for the electric car industry to fail: In reporting the NHTSA’s decision to open an investigation, Fox News declared the Volt “Obama’s favorite car.”

With these forces arrayed against its product, it’s not surprising that GM is taking pains to insist the car is safe and offering loaner cars to any concerned Volt owner—a measure the company says goes beyond its normal safety procedures. With the Volt, GM is showing an extra measure of good faith to early adopters, who took a chance on the new technology. The company is also pleading: Don’t abandon us now.

The government hasn’t found the Volt’s malfunction in any other electric vehicles. But as more electric cars come onto the market, other unforeseen issues are bound to crop up. For EVs to gain popularity, though, these problems will have to be minimal—car companies have little room to convince consumers to buy something new and risky instead of its old and reliable counterpart, even if they both post risks. If companies like GM don't get it right, the momentum towards electric vehicles could dwindle and die out again.

Photo courtesy of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration

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