General Motors’ top executive said the company may redesign the Chevrolet Volt’s battery pack in response to a federal inquiry into the safety of the pack and will (possibly) buy back Volts from any owner concerned the car might catch fire.
The moves, which CEO Dan Ackerson announced in interviews Thursday, come as GM continues a comprehensive response to a federal investigation of two fires that followed crash tests. Although GM insists the Chevrolet Volt is safe, it is moving swiftly to cooperate with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation and reassure the 6,400 or so consumers who own Volts.
To that end, Ackerson said GM is taking a fresh look at the design of the 435-pound battery and may make revisions. It also will buy back Volts from any concerned owners — after having already promised free loaners to anyone who wants one — and will recall the cars if necessary to make any needed repairs or modifications.
“If we find that is the solution, we will retrofit every one of them,” Akerson told the Associated Press in an exclusive interview.
However, there appears to be some confusion about Ackerson’s saying the company will buy back Volts. After Ackerson mentioned that plan to the Associated Press, company spokesman Rob Peterson eased back. The Wall Street Journal reported that GM would consider buying back cars but has not established a policy to do so.
“His quotes were in the context of the doing what is right for the customer and not the announcement of a new initiative as was insinuated by some reports,” Peterson, said, according to the Journal.
At issue are two fires, both of which started long after the car and battery in question were crashed.
The problem came to light in June when a Volt caught fire three weeks after a side-impact crash test. Several news outlets reported last month that GM and the NHTSA replicated the crash on “at least two other” vehicles without the cars catching fire. In a further effort to recreate the May test, the NHTSA said in a statement, investigators conducted three tests on Volt battery packs in mid-November. One of those batteries caught fire one week after being crashed.
“The fire broke out seven days later. Not seven minutes. Not seven seconds,” Ackerson said.
That’s an important note. Several analysts have said this is not a a problem with electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle technology. Rather, it is a question of what to do with batteries after a crash. General Motors has outlined procedures for draining the energy from a pack after a crash. Ackerson said General Motors is alerted to crashes by the OnStar system in every Volt and dispatches an engineer within 48 hours to drain the energy from the car’s pack.
Although Ackerson said GM may redesign the Volt’s 16 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, a company spokesman told Reuters there are no immediate plans to change the battery. It was not clear if any redesign would be incorporated into current or future cars.
General Motors and the NHTSA have said they are not aware of any Volts catching fire out on the road.
The Volt has a five-star overall vehicle safety score from the NHTSA, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named it a top safety pick. The Volt’s European cousin, the Opel Ampera, has done well in safety tests by Euro NCAP. The automaker has sold more than 5,200 Volts in the past year, and the car has been “exceptionally well received by consumers,” according to J.D. Power & Associates.
“It is a safe car,” Akerson said in an interview with Reuters. “We just want make sure that there are protocols post-crash. We want to make sure all the Ts are crossed, the Is are dotted, and no one has any question about the car long-term.”
Of the 6,400 people who have purchased Volts since the car went on sale one year ago, only 33 have requested a loaner, according to the Detroit Free Press.