January 6, 2012
General Motors is going to modify its Chevrolet Volt plug-in car to eliminate the possibility it can catch on fire after a serious side-impact crash, the company said Thursday. GM stopped short of calling its repair program a recall, using the term “customer satisfaction” action instead.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which had been investigating after a couple of $39,995 cars caught on fire days or weeks after their battery compartments were breached in crash testing, issued its own statement Thursday. “The remedy proposed by General Motors today should address the issue of battery intrusion,” the NHTSA said.
The probe, however, garnered a lot of attention because it involves the vehicle GM has touted as an automotive wonder—the first “extended-range electric car” from a major maker that runs 25 to 50 miles on electricity alone before a gas engine takes over for longer range.
GM blames the fires on battery coolant, which could leak into the car’s electronics. The leaks were discovered in tests in which a Volt was rotated until it was inverted. Only a small amount of coolant—a few cupfuls—spilled.
GM will modify the car to strengthen protection around the battery. It will also add a bracket to prevent coolant overfill and a sensor to monitor coolant levels. The additional shielding will weigh only about 5 pounds, so it won’t affect the car’s fuel mileage. “It is a structural reinforcement that distributes the load,” said Mary Barra, GM’s senior vice president of global products.
Some of the best news for GM is its finding that the battery itself is safe and doesn’t need modification, which could have been an expensive repair. GM North America chief Mark Reuss says only about 250 owners took up GM on its offer to buy back Volts or received loaner cars in the wake of questions about the vehicle’s safety.
GM, which has produced more than 8,000 Volts so far, says owners will be notified individually when the modifications are ready for their cars. The company doesn’t plan any special advertising to address the car’s image. “It’s short term,” said Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal. “Automakers have recalls all the time. It’s an unfortunate and normal part of manufacturing vehicles.”
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