WASHINGTON -- Federal safety regulators have begun an $8.75 million study of whether lithium ion batteries in electric vehicles pose a potential fire hazard, officials said Thursday.
Kevin Vincent, chief counsel of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said researchers are looking at whether the high-voltage batteries can cause fires when they are being charged and when the vehicles are in an accident.
"We don't want anyone to burn down their house when they're charging the car," Vincent told a Washington conference co-sponsored by Volvo. "And no one has a good handle on the safety of the vehicle after a crash."
Vincent, explaining the reason for the research, noted the risk posed by 400-volt lithium ion batteries compared with standard 12-volt lead-acid batteries used in gasoline-powered vehicles.
One incident that caught the attention of regulators was computer-maker Dell Inc.'s recall in 2006 of 4.1 million lithium ion batteries in laptop computers. The Sony Corp.-made batteries posed a fire risk "under rare conditions," due to a manufacturing defect, Dell said at the time.
A NHTSA spokeswoman said there were no electric-vehicle fires that triggered the research, which is due to continue through 2014.
Most gasoline-electric hybrids today use nickel metal hydride batteries, but within 10 years, 70 percent of hybrids, and all plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles are expected to run on lithium ion batteries, some analysts forecast.
Charles Gassenheimer, CEO of Ener1, which makes lithium ion batteries for Volvo and Norwegian EV maker Think, said the biggest fire risk comes when a consumer over-charges an EV battery.
"That's when you might see a battery catch fire, not typically when a vehicle is on the road," he said.
Gassenheimer praised NHTSA's research effort.
"If we understand the fire risk, it can be mitigated down to a low probability," he said.
Vincent said EV and battery makers have been employing "safe strategies" thus far to contain any potential fire risks.
"It's essential that companies not have any incident of electric vehicles on fire," he said. "It could kill public acceptance of electric vehicles for all manufacturers."
NHTSA is working on the research with other federal agencies, including the Energy Department, Vincent said.
General Motors, which makes the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, is assisting NHTSA researchers and has given them a tour of the company's new battery lab, GM spokesman Greg Martin said.
The Obama administration has set a goal of having 1 million electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015.