General Motors offers loaner cars to Volt owners

General Motors Co. said on Monday it will offer loaner vehicles to Chevrolet Volt owners to address safety worries amid a U.S. investigation into post-crash fires involving the battery-powered vehicles.

GM said it believes sparks or fires that occurred in three Volt batteries following crash tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this year were caused by electronics malfunctions and not overheating chemicals within the battery cell. The company has assembled a team of engineers to work with federal safety officials to pinpoint the cause and work out a solution.

U.S. auto-safety officials opened an investigation into the Volt last week after two crash tests of the electric car caused its battery to spark or catch fire. NHTSA conducted the tests because of an incident this spring in which a Volt battery damaged in a crash test caught fire three weeks later. The agency routinely runs crash tests on new vehicles and prior tests had not uncovered any problems.

GM is now working on fixes that would make the battery casing sturdier, GM product chief Mary Barra said on Monday. Nissan Motor Co.'s Leaf, the only other mass-market electric car on sale in the U.S., has a steel encasement around its battery that helps protect it in the event of a crash.

"We're looking at a handful of promising avenues," she said, adding that GM is confident that the vehicle is safe.

GM said the issues surrounding the Volt fires involve proper handling of the car after a crash. Both NHTSA and GM have said Volt owners shouldn't worry as the fires occurred days after a crash and not on impact. They pointed out that gasoline-powered cars also are at risk of catching fire when damaged.

The company is working to get word out to emergency responders on how to handle a crashed Volt. In the case of a crash, GM would send a battery expert to check the car if the damage is deemed severe enough to call for the battery to be disconnected, something that is determined by GM's OnStar vehicle telecommunications system.

The issue of post-crash safety involving electric cars needs to be addressed throughout the industry and is not only a concern for the Detroit auto maker, GM North America chief Mark Reuss said.

As GM works to address issues with the Volt, the company also is rushing to head off any image troubles around the Volt, which was launched this year as a key part of GM's efforts to reinvent itself and a high-tech, environmentally friendly auto company.

The loner program will offer up a new GM car or truck to Volt owners for the duration of the investigation into Volt safety, Mr. Reuss said.

"This technology should inspire confidence and pride, not raise doubt and concern," he said. "I believe in the safety of the Volt. The primary focus is on the confidence and concerns of our paying customers."

In a letter sent on Monday to Volt owners and dealers, Mr. Reuss said the fires caused in the NHTSA tests would not occur during normal driving.

"First and foremost, I want to assure you of one very important thing: the Volt is a safe car," he wrote. "These recent tests show a very rare set of circumstances: A severe impact resulting in the battery and coolant lines being compromised. And then the passing of a significant amount of time before an electrical fire may take place."

In the latest NHTSA tests, the agency intentionally damaged the battery compartment and ruptured the vehicle's coolant line to replicate the initial incident in May. Though the fire in that incident occurred weeks after a crash, the latest incidents happened within a week, the agency said.

(Published by WSJ - November 28, 2011)

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