WASHINGTON -- General Motors Co.'s electric plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt is the subject of a U.S. safety probe after its lithium-ion batteries, supplied by LG Chem Ltd., caught fire in crash tests.
A Volt caught fire three weeks after a side-impact crash test May 12 while parked at a testing center in Wisconsin, leading regulators to conduct more tests. Volt battery packs were damaged in three more tests last week, causing two fires, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Friday in a statement on its website.
"The agency is concerned that damage to the Volt's batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire," NHTSA said in the statement.
The U.S. regulator said it doesn't know of any crashes outside of testing that have led to battery-related fires in Volts or other cars powered by lithium-ion batteries. Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash don't need to be concerned, the agency said.
GM maintains that the car is safe. The automaker and NHTSA have been working for months to replicate the fire in the car's lithium-ion battery that occurred three weeks after the May collision test, Greg Martin, a GM spokesman, said by telephone.
Inducing battery failure
The testing, which involved a stand-alone battery assembly, "is part of a broader program over the last six months to induce battery failure under extreme conditions," Martin said.
LG Chem, South Korea's biggest chemical maker, is the Volt's battery vendor. Dick Pacini, a spokesman with the Millerschin Group, which works for LG Chem, said he couldn't immediately provide comment. On Nov. 22, LG Chem said in a statement that it was cooperating with NHTSA and GM.
NHTSA, which said it's working with the U.S. Defense and Energy departments to analyze the fires, conducted its first new test on Nov. 16 without a fire. The second test on Nov. 17 saw an initial temporary increase in battery temperature after the crash, and the battery pack caught fire at the test facility on Nov. 24. In a third test on Nov. 18, the battery was rotated hours after the crash and "began to smoke and emit sparks shortly after," NHTSA said.
At this stage of Volt marketing, the NHTSA investigation will probably not hurt sales, said Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics Inc., a consulting firm in Birmingham, Mich.
The car has been on sale for a year as the manufacturer ramps up production. Most Volt owners are early adopters with an interest in the technology, and won't be deterred by the post-collision fires, Hall said.
"If they were selling to the mass market, it would be a bigger problem," he said.
GM started selling the car in seven states and began offering the Volt in all 50 states in October, Martin said.
Chevrolet sold 5,003 Volts this year through October, according to Autodata Corp., a research firm in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
GM will push production to a rate of 60,000 a year starting in January. Of the 60,000 GM plans to build next year, 45,000 are earmarked for the U.S., and the rest will be exported, the company has said.