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

via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less