PHILIP NUSSEL

How GM's industrial accident became an election year story

Philip Nussel is managing editor of autonews.com.Philip Nussel is managing editor of autonews.com.
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Earlier today an accident took place at General Motors' battery-testing lab in Warren, Mich., and at least one person was injured enough to be hospitalized. GM engineers were testing a prototype lithium ion battery when, according to reports, an explosion and fire occurred.

Almost as soon as the report came out, there was breathless discussion in the media of this being another alleged problem for GM's Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid vehicle, which after 16 months on the market has yet to have a single battery catch fire or explode in a normal driving situation.

"The headlines are not positive for lithium ion and General Motors," Dennis Virag, president of Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, Mich., told Bloomberg today in a report on the incident. "It does bring up the subject of the dangers associated with batteries."

I'm absolutely perplexed as to how this became a story about the Volt.

First of all, a prototype is exactly that -- a prototype. That means it's not going into any production car until it passes testing and gets certification. It's being tested, which is exactly when you want a battery to explode -- not when an actual customer is using it.

Secondly, the battery being tested today wasn't even made by the supplier of the Volt's batteries, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But, oh yeah, it's an election year.

President Obama is running for re-election and the government still owns a minority stake in GM, which makes the Volt. Korea's LG Chem makes the lithium ion batteries that go into it. Thus, of course, Barack Obama is responsible for those dangerous batteries that explode every time someone drives a Volt. Who could vote for him?

Industrial accidents are a terrible thing and they are often avoidable. It's tragic that someone got seriously injured today in the course of doing his or her job. When it's not an election year, that's what the story would be about.

But during an election year, this industrial accident has become another play in an ongoing truth-challenged game of political football.

You can reach Philip Nussel at pnussel@crain.com.

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