NHTSA, Consumer reports, no plans to change the Volt’s “five-star” safety rating

Erica Evarts, Associate Autos Editor at Consumer Reports, confirmed that Consumer Reports will not change the Volt’s five-star rating.

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Evarts explained how the five-star rating for Consumer Reports is built, “We (Consumer Reports) picks up part of the rating from NHTSA and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Basically, if it doesn’t do well in crash tests with either of those organizations we don’t recommend it. Consumer Reports does not crash test vehicles themselves. It scored high enough to be rated “recommended” by Consumer Reports”

The test NHTSA is doing now is a preliminary stage test. It’s not part of the “five-star” crash test, or part of their Universally publicized tests, as of yet, but NHTSA is doing tests on what is known as a “side-pole” crash. It is not part of Consumer Reports rating either.

I know this test, and agree that it should be studied. A friend of mine was driving in a beat up old truck. He and his 12 year old Son were riding along on a Sunday afternoon. As they went through a traffic light another car careened right into them. My friend’s first concern was for his Son. Neither of them were wearing seat belts and he thought his Son would fly into the windshield. His Son did not. But what he didn’t calculate was that the truck would be pushed into a telephone pole and the Son’s head would hit the side window, instantly killing him.

NHTSA procures the cars they test anonymously. This way the manufacturer cannot change anything on the vehicle they test and it also allows NHTSA to see what correspondence the manufacturer gives the consumer.

In the course of testing the Volt NHTSA did a side-pole test. It is my understanding that NHTSA drained the fuel from the gasoline tank before doing the side-pole test. It is unclear whether they did drain the energy from the battery, but it appears they did not. General Motors has said it was because they had not given NHTSA the protocol for draining the battery.

A source inside General Motors told me that the issue after the side-pole test (done in May, 2011) was not the battery, or the cells, rather the coolant. It took the liquid coolant three weeks to crystallize and the compromised coolant is suspected of creating the fire. In November, 2011 there were three more battery tests that did not result in fires, though one damaged battery did emit sparks and smoke. Those batteries were not in the car, according to the GM source.

There are a couple of issues that get highlighted from this incident:

1. All manufacturers are going to need to do a better job of explaining to the public that chemical energy is energy and needs to be respected as much as any other energy, such as hydrocarbons (gasoline).

2. NHTSA needs to hire more electrical engineers. Over the years car fires inside internal combustion engines have decreased. In 2007 the National Fire Protection Agency reported 270,000 car fires. By 2010, it had decreased to 215,000. NHTSA needs to be more pro-active in accessing electrical issues. They should be able to tell car manufacturers to strengthen the crash worthiness of the battery structure, or encase coolant lines that go around center areas.

Lithium-ion is expensive and not dense enough for the driving range Americans want. Other chemistries for batteries are being worked on. Lithium-sulfur, lithium-air, magnesium, even mercury are all being given consideration as a battery chemistry. All energies have issues. If NHTSA is going to set standards they need to hire electrical engineers that know these chemistries.

General Motors has not taken any part of the Department of Energy (DOE) loan money available to the manufacturer for re-tooling for the Chevy Volt. The only tax credit given is when the Volt actually sells. Nissan, Ford, Tesla, Fisker and T Boone Pickens group have all taken DOE money. Fiat’s U.S. Subsidiary, Chrysler, has applied for DOE money.

The Associated Press reported that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose agency includes NHTSA, told reporters that the Volt is safe to drive even though the government is investigating the fires.

About the Author:

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY), Women's World Car of the Year (WWCOTY), and the Concept Car of the Year.