Time for government to come clean on Chevy Volt fire probe

Peter Flaherty President, National Legal and Policy Center
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Today, the National Legal and Policy Center submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for all communications with General Motors (GM) regarding the Chevrolet Volt.

NHTSA is investigating three fires in Volt battery packs following collision tests, but it may have withheld information about this potential safety problem from the public for several months. Consumers had a right to know if the Chevy Volt was dangerous before it came to market, and the public has a right to know if the NHTSA is currently doing its job.

Two recent Chevrolet Volt fires finally prompted NHTSA to launch a formal investigation of what has been called GM’s “crown jewel.” In fact, according to Automotive News’s Christina Rogers, NHTSA was aware of at least one Volt defect leading to an automobile fire in test conditions in June 2011, but the agency did nothing. These fires may have been caused by unripe battery technology. Thus far in its formal investigation, NHTSA has been able to reproduce the outcome two out of three times, indicating design problems. To make matters worse, Edward Niedermeyer at The Truth About Cars unearthed new revelations that General Motors itself may have known that the Volt was dangerous but said nothing publicly.

In a recent conference call with reporters, GM North America President Mark Reuss and Senior Vice President for Global Product Development Mary Barra admitted not only that Volt owners would be in serious danger of fires in the event of a collision, but that GM has had a solution for this problem since July of this year and did nothing to correct the flaw. GM is currently reaching out to roughly 6,000 Volt owners in the U.S. with a damage control message, and is even offering loaner cars to Volt purchasers while NHTSA investigates. And only now, after recent fire stories blew up in the media (no pun intended), has the agency bothered to subject this taxpayer-funded venture to additional scrutiny.

“It’s important to drain the energy from the battery after a crash that compromises the battery’s integrity — or you risk potential fire,” said Reuss and Barra to reporters. That might be sound advice for automotive experts, but traditional consumers cannot reasonably know if a crash has compromised a battery’s integrity before flames erupt — unless, of course, the driver purchased a subscription to GM’s OnStar service, a satellite-based electronic monitoring system with its own set of recent public controversies. Moreover, ensuring the personal health and safety of drivers and passengers should be the chief concern of any crash victim at the time of a collision — not draining the energy from their vehicle’s battery.

Reuss and Barra deny that this issue is unique to the Volt, and insist that GM is leading an industry-wide effort to address the problem. Yet Niedermeyer correctly observes that no other hybrid or electric vehicle seems to have any such reported incidents associated with it. Indeed, as he notes, other “green” cars use a steel battery casing in their designs to prevent fire. Thankfully, nobody has yet been injured or killed to date by a Volt battery fire.

Despite public opposition, GM was bailed out by taxpayers. The architect of the bailout, Steven Rattner, tried to kill the Volt because it is unlikely to ever be profitable. But it somehow survives with both production and sales subsidized by the taxpayer. GM CEO Dan Akerson has now offered to buy back the Volt from anyone who bought one. If questions multiply about the Volt’s safety, a bad deal for taxpayers could get significantly worse.

Unfortunately, because the U.S. Treasury is still a 33% shareholder of GM, the government has every incentive to prevent a thorough and potentially damaging NHTSA investigation. It’s no surprise that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rushed to issue a statement in support of GM on Tuesday evening when reports surfaced that NHTSA had suppressed its June 2011 findings. None other than former NHTSA head Joan Claybrook criticized the delay, attributing it to the “fragility of Volt sales.” Secretary LaHood reassured consumers that the Volt is safe to drive. He also insists that he’s not protecting Government Motors or the auto industry (wink, wink).

Of course, while the Volt may be safe to drive, that’s not the issue. People are concerned about what happens when it crashes.

Peter Flaherty is the president and co-founder of the National Legal and Policy Center, a 501(c)(3) foundation that promotes ethics in public life through research, investigation, education and legal action.