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View Chevrolet Volt fires in perspective

No question, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is doing the right thing in exhaustively studying fires in crash-tested Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrids.

And there’s no question that General Motors must take whatever measures are necessary to decrease the risk of fire in the Volt’s lithium ion battery packs.

But the fires need to be seen in perspective. They have not occurred during consumer driving, or after actual highway accidents. Based on what we know at this point, they do not mean that the Volt is unsafe -- or at least any less safe than cars propelled by internal combustion engines.

What the Volt is, is new, which means it’s not entirely understood. When you’re dealing with onboard energy, limited understanding can be a problem.

Consider what an automotive fuel does. In one way or another, it releases enough energy to propel an object weighing several thousand pounds at high speeds. In an internal combustion engine, that’s done by a rapid series of contained explosions. In a battery-powered vehicle, it’s done by an electrochemical reaction.

In either case, a significant amount of energy must be stored onboard and released in a precisely controlled manner. That’s tricky, considering that cars endure not only catastrophic crashes, but everyday bumps, vibrations, temperature and humidity fluctuations, dust and so on. This is why you see occasional vehicle fires along the side of the road caused by gasoline and other flammable liquids.

We’re just beginning to learn about lithium ion batteries, particularly in how emergency first responders should deal with them. This is a serious matter, but in itself it should not derail the technology. We need to develop ways to manage the risk, just as we manage the risk of millions of cars speeding about with tanks full of gasoline.

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