General Motors Co. will provide free loaners of conventional vehicles to Chevrolet Volt owners who have concern about their plug-in hybrid-electric cars in light of fires that occurred in Volt battery packs following crash-testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), GM executives told the media in a conference call Monday. At the same time, GM senior engineers, as they have been for the past six months, will continue to work with NHTSA to determine the specific cause of the fires, which have occurred anywhere from a week to up to three weeks after the battery pack initially was damaged in the crash test. The company said it will extend training and availability of required equipment needed drain the battery to dealerships, salvage yards and others who deal with Volts that are in severe crashes, as the automaker did earlier with first responders. However, GM will not halt Volt production and sales, and it will continue its U.S. advertising campaign that is heavily focused on the Volt.
GM's moves come after NHTSA announced Friday a preliminary investigation into the Volt's lithium-ion batteries after two fires and one sparking incident following NHTSA crash tests. The first of the Chevrolet Volt fires occurred in June at NHTSA's test facility in Wisconsin, where the federal safety agency stored a Volt, which had been side-impact crash-tested and rolled, caught fire weeks later. Following that incident, NHTSA, in an effort to replicate the first fire, conducted further lab tests of the Volt battery pack itself. NHTSA simulated in the lab a side-crash test on the Volt battery pack Nov. 17; seven days later, it caught fire. Another such test caused the Volt's battery pack to emit sparks a few hours after the test. Two other highly-publicized garage fires involving a Volt were investigated and fire marshals determined the Volt was not the cause of either of them. NHTSA confirmed it had no reports of fires from real-world crashes. "NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles have incredible potential to save consumers money at the pump, help protect the environment, create jobs and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil," the safety agency said in a statement.
"I believe in the safety of Volt," GM president of North America Mark Reuss, whose children drive a Volt daily, told the media. "But peace of mind of our customers is the most important thing." To that end, GM is notifying the 5,329 people who have purchased the Volt since it went on sale last December — as well as Chevy dealers — of steps it is taking to address the situation. If Volt owners are "the least bit concerned," Reuss said, the automaker will provide them with the free loan of another GM vehicle for peace of mind. He said no customer has expressed a concern so far and none have requested a loaner. He said no specific end time for the free-loaner offer exists and GM as yet has no idea how many Volt owners might request a loaner. "The Volt is our pride and joy, and we'll do all we can to make Volt owners as proud and happy with the car as we are. This car is the future, and the future is just beginning," Reuss said.
Mary Barra, senior vice president in charge of product planning, told reporters that it is too early in the investigation to pinpoint the precise cause of the fires. "We have done extensive testing on the chemistry for the battery in the Volt, and we are confident it is a very stable chemistry," said Barra, adding the electrical controls within in the battery possibly triggered the first Volt fire. "In a severe crash, the most important thing is to depower the battery," said Barra. She said if the crash-tested Volt and tested Volt battery backs had been depowered, fires would not have occurred. No fires have occurred in any Chevrolet Volt in a real-world crash. Currently, GM is notified of any crash of a Chevrolet Volt through its OnStar telematics system, then GM employees are dispatched to the vehicle and drain the battery through a simple procedure, according to Micky Bly, GM's executive director of electrical systems, hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries. While GM engineers continue to work with NHTSA on the cause of the fires, GM also is "looking at a handful of promising avenues to make the battery more robust," Barra added.
GM's Chief Marketing Officer Joel Ewanick said the automaker plans no change in its marketing and advertising campaign that is heavily weighted towards the Volt. "We're not changing a thing," he told reporters. "We've been advertising the Volt heavily and it represents a big part of GM's national advertising spend (between 5 and 6 percent of the total budget). It was scheduled to taper down by Christmas." He said the Volt helps draw consumers to dealerships for other Chevy products. "Every time we've tested it we find that of those aware of the Volt, 60 percent are more likely to consider a Chevrolet. It's a great lift for the brand."