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Volt catches fire weeks after crash
Following a fire in a Chevrolet Volt several weeks after a crash test, government officials are weighing the need for new safety rules that could require first responders to drain electric vehicles’ batteries after a crash.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said today it had investigated a fire that occurred this spring, after the Volt extended-range electric vehicle underwent a 20 mile-per-hour, side-impact test for its five-star crash safety rating. The crash punctured the Volt’s lithium-ion battery, and after more than three weeks of sitting outside, the vehicle and several cars around it caught fire. No one was hurt.

General Motors believes the fire occurred because NHTSA did not drain the energy from the Volt’s battery following the crash, which is a safety step the automaker recommends, GM spokesman Rob Peterson said. NHTSA had not been told of the safety protocol, Peterson said.

Still, none of the other Volts the agency crash tested caught fire, even though they still had charged batteries, according to a NHTSA official who declined to be identified because of ongoing discussions with automakers.

“We don’t want to make it sounds like this one incident could be the general case,” the official said. “We don’t see the risk of electric vehicles as being any greater than that for a gasoline vehicle.”

This is the only crashed Volt ever to catch fire, GM spokesman Greg Martin said.

NHTSA plans more testing of the Volt's battery.

The fire’s cause – the battery puncture -- led to questions about whether other automakers require batteries to be discharged of their energy following major crashes, the NHTSA official said. In addition, regulators are exploring protocols for who would do that – firefighters who respond first, for instance – and how quickly should they do it.

NHTSA is now reviewing the responses it has received from automakers and waiting for additional information from some carmakers as well. The official said it is too early to tell if the agency will issue a rule on discharging batteries.

"First and foremost, I want to make this very clear: the Volt is a safe car," said Jim Federico, General Motors chief engineer for electric vehicles. "We are working cooperatively with NHTSA as it completes its investigation. However, NHTSA has stated that, based on available data, there's no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gasoline-powered car."

The lithium ion batteries found in plug-in and electric vehicles are lighter than the nickel metal hydride batteries used in older hybrid vehicles and contain a higher density charge. GM has been proactive in educating emergency responders on electric vehicle safety, including how to cut electricity to the car battery.

Federico argued that protocols need to be established industrywide, including standards for dealing with salvage vehicles, saying, "Safety protocols for electric vehicles are clearly an industry concern. At GM, we have safety protocols to depower the battery of an electric vehicle after a significant crash. We are working with other vehicle manufacturers, first responders, tow truck operators, and salvage associations with the goal of implementing industrywide protocols." 

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