Transportation | December 14, 2011 |
Will Volt Battery Fires Curb Electric Vehicle Demand?
by Dave Hurst
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently announced that they are doing an official investigation into fires in the Chevrolet Volt battery packs. Essentially, if the packs are not discharged after a catastrophic crash, some of these packs have caught fire hours, days or weeks after the crash. While this does not seem to present a safety issue for owners, it could for first responders, towing companies and repair facilities. Jordan Weissmann, writing for The Atlantic, claimed that this is “an unpleasant story for GM. But it’s also bad news for the rest of the electric car movement.”
To some degree, he may be right. The Volt is a symbol or halo vehicle for GM, and those who are eager to see plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) fail will certainly enjoy this and make some hay from it. Giving the PEV haters an opportunity to point to a safety issue is definitely not ideal for continued growth of the market in general. While Neil Cavuto’s uneducated, seething hatred of the Volt is distinctive (and seemingly based in politics rather than anything engineering related), the point is that a symbolic vehicle whose battery failure results in a fire is a dramatic enough event to even draw questions from non-automotive writers like Mr. Weissmann.
However, I don’t agree that the symbolism will ultimately drag down the entire market. It does seem likely to hurt Volt sales in the short-term, but long-term this looks more like the typical growing pains of a new product, rather than the death of the PEV. More likely, the impact will be a few new model delays as automakers look to shore up any outstanding safety questions that may stem from the Volt fires. I do not expect to see automakers lambasting each other’s battery technology. We did see sniping between Nissan and GM over the BEV vs. PHEV issue in the early months, but nobody wants to see a shadow cast over lithium batteries used in vehicles.
For GM’s part, they have responded quite reasonably to this issue. GM has been communicating with owners, offering loaners and now offering buyback for those concerned (no one to date has accepted this offer). Contrasting GM’s actions to Toyota’s response to unintended acceleration allegations last spring, we see a very different strategy. Claiming that this type of problem will kill the entire PEV market is analogous (albeit not exactly the same) to claiming that Toyota’s unintended acceleration would kill the entire midsize gas-powered vehicle market. Perhaps even more relevant, several years back, Dell recalled batteries from nearly every laptop product line due to a fire risk. That didn’t kill the market for Dell laptops.
Mr. Weissmann came full circle in the article, pointing out that, “There’s also no sign at this point that the Volt is any more of a fire risk than your average gasoline-powered car”, wrapping up “How GM handles it will have lasting implications not just for the company, but the industry as a whole.” I agree that GM could have harpooned the whole PEV market, by laying the blame at some fundamental lithium technology. But that has not been the case. Are the American consumers smart enough to see the difference between a single, although symbolic, vehicle issue and a fundamental vehicle technology? I’m betting they are.An analyst for Pike Research, Dave Hurst studies emerging markets in electric transportation.