U.S. auto-safety regulators investigating Chevy Volt lithium ion batteries after catching fire

Article by Christian A., on November 14, 2011

The safety of the lithium ion batteries in electric vehicles is in question after an incident of a Chevrolet Volt battery catching fire was reported. A probe has been initiated by U.S. auto-safety regulators over this issue. Sources say that the automakers that either already sell vehicles powered by lithium ion batteries or have plans to do so were approached by regulators.

These automakers include General Motors, Nissan Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co. According to an agency official, the Volt was parked at the testing center of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration when it caught fire.

Three weeks earlier, it had been subjected to a side-impact crash test. Jim Federico, GM’s chief engineer for electric vehicles, said that what he wants to emphasize is that the Volt is a “safe car.” He asserted that the company is cooperating with the NHTSA’s probe. The NHTSA has said that according to available data, the risk of a Volt catching fire is not greater than that of a traditional gas-powered car.

This investigation comes at a time when the automakers are working to expand their plug-in offerings beyond the Volt and Nissan's Leaf, which started selling in the 2011 model year as the first mass-market plug-in electric cars offered in the U.S. It should be mentioned that a nickel-metal battery is used by Toyota Motor Co.'s Prius, the top-selling hybrid in the world.

However, lithium ion batteries will soon be used by a plug-in Prius and an electric version of the RAV4 sport-utility vehicle.

President Barack Obama aims to achieve its target of having 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by the year 2015. Nissan is one of the companies that had been given financing assistance by the U.S. Energy Department and European Investment Bank for the development of the Leaf and lithium ion batteries.

According to Micky Bly, who is the executive director at GM responsible for global electrical systems, the company’s customers have long been committed to using technology that can help lower society’s reliance on petroleum. With this in mind, he added, the company in turn made a commitment to offer customers the highest of standards when it comes to performance, quality, reliability, safety, and value.

Thus while the Chevrolet Volt is indeed a masterpiece, what sets it apart is the Voltec propulsion system. It has two components with the first being the long-life battery which has the T-shaped lithium-ion battery pack weighing 435 lbs. (198.1 kg), measuring 5.5 feet, with output of 16 kWh. The company’s facility located in Brownstown Township, Michigan, is responsible for supplying the advanced electric drive unit with energy to move the Volt.

With total output at 149 hp (111 kW), the Volt can travel emission free as far as 25 miles to 50 miles using only the energy inside the battery. Actual figures though would depend on the current temperature, type of terrain, and driving technique. Should the energy in the battery ever be drained, the Volt immediately shifts to what is known as the extended-range mode.

The Volt thus gets energy from the second component of the propulsion system which is the 1.4-liter gas-powered engine having output of 84 hp (63 kW). With this, the Volt gets an additional range of 310 miles. Thus with the two combined, total range for the Volt is estimated at 350 miles. Using the propulsion system, the Volt shows that driving an electric vehicle can be as energetic as any regular vehicle.

Maximum speed of the Volt has been measured at 100 mph and given that the peak torque of 273 lb.-ft. (368 Nm) is available even when at low speeds, acceleration from 0 mph to 60 mph is possible in barely 9.0 seconds. Acceleration from standstill to a quarter of a mile can be achieved in less than 17.0 seconds. In case there is a need to recharge the battery, it can be done easily as all that is needed is either a dedicated 240-volt charging station or a 120-volt standard electrical outlet at home. For the former, total charging time takes around 4 hours while the latter would need between 10 hours to 12 hours.

The battery is not just about performance and emission-free drive as it was made with the company’s commitment in mind which is durability, value, reliability, safety, and quality. The warranty that protects the battery is good for 8 years or 100,000 miles. This is assured as going back as far as 2007, the engineers at the company made sure that the battery packs would complete validation testing of 4 million hours and 1 million miles.

This is not limited to the completed battery pack but includes the 9 modules and the 288 prismatic cells. With 95% of the battery pack’s 161 parts designed and then engineered at GM, the different teams, from development, to validation, and test, made sure that thousands of specifications were met and validated.

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