The recent announcement that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating fires that occurred in Chevrolet Volts after they were crash-tested by the agency is a potential PR nightmare for General Motors -- and reveals a larger problem for an increasingly electric-minded industry.
GM is offering to buy back Volts from concerned customers and is considering a redesign of the battery pack -- steps that will help the automaker's image.
But for the well-being of consumers, and to maintain public confidence in electric vehicles in general, the overriding concerns must be about vehicle safety testing and certification procedures, NHTSA and transparency.
One troubling aspect of the Volt fires misadventure was the delay by NHTSA and GM in publicly releasing information about the fires, the first of which occurred in the first week of June, three weeks after the vehicle underwent rigorous side-impact testing on May 12. The information wasn't made public until last month.
That raises questions about when the public should be notified about safety hazards.
Some safety advocates say the Volt was put on sale too soon, before sufficient safety testing. If true, that suggests the current system of safety certification needs to be revised to deal with new technologies, including those that use tricky lithium ion batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and natural gas.
Just as technologies are changing, so must NHTSA's procedures to guarantee the safety of the motoring public, first responders, service technicians and others.
That could mean NHTSA needs more money for testing new technologies and educating the public about their risks. If the agency can make that case, Congress is obligated to give NHTSA what it needs.
As the automobile becomes more complex, it poses new challenges for engineers and regulators. Those challenges must be resolved before new technologies are introduced to the public.