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GM, NHTSA Delayed Volt Warnings To Prop Up Sales 344

Posted by timothy
from the regulatory-capture-and-cronyism dept.
Lauren Weinstein excerpts the most interesting part of a BBC story about the safety hazards associated with the Chevy Volt — specifically, the risk that its battery pack could catch fire after even a minor impact. While it might be unsurprising that GM was reluctant to shout out safety warnings that would dampen early sales of its much touted hybrid, according to the linked story the NHTSA was as well, and for the same reason: "Part of the reason for delaying the disclosure was the 'fragility of Volt sales' up until that point, according to Joan Claybrook, a former administrator at NHTSA."
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GM, NHTSA Delayed Volt Warnings To Prop Up Sales

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:13PM (#38307144)

    Can't have the Government criticizing a Government Motors product now, can we? Especially if it's GREEN!

  • Ohhhh shit (Score:2, Funny)

    by GameboyRMH (1153867)

    RIP once more, electric car. Dig you up in 20 years once the fallout of this conspiracy washes away. :-(

    • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:5, Informative)

      by grqb (410789) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:19PM (#38307258) Homepage Journal

      This is getting blown way out of proportion.

      See this article for another view: http://www.economist.com/node/21541395 [economist.com]

      Specifically the last paragraph:
      "What is left unsaid in all this is the fact that conventional cars with a tank full of petrol are far greater fire hazards than electric cars will ever be. Some 185,000 vehicles catch fire in America each year, with no fewer than 285 people dying as a consequence. But, then, people have been living with the hazard of petrol for over a century. Irrationally, electric-vehicle fires are perceived as somehow more worrisome simply because they are new."

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by 0123456 (636235)

        It's true. My gasoline-powered cars catch fire all the time.

        You are half-right, though. From what I've read the Volt's battery is supposed to be drained after a crash to ensure it can't catch fire... which must be great fun for people who are responding to the accident.

        • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:4, Interesting)

          by mcgrew (92797) * on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:46PM (#38307676) Homepage Journal

          It's true. My gasoline-powered cars catch fire all the time.

          I've only had one [kuro5hin.org] catch fire, and it wasn't even in a wreck. The difference between gasoline cars catching fire after a wreck and electric cars catching fire after a wreck is that the gas car will burn immediately, while it will take a week for the electric car. Nobody has died in an electric car fire (yet), but a lot of people have died in gasoline fires. Look at Pintos and Crown Voctorias.

        • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Defenestrar (1773808) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @05:08PM (#38307970)

          It's true. My gasoline-powered cars catch fire all the time.

          You are half-right, though. From what I've read the Volt's battery is supposed to be drained after a crash to ensure it can't catch fire... which must be great fun for people who are responding to the accident.

          A more pertinent question is whether the responders feel safe using the jaws of life on an electric car. Unless every emergency responder is required to learn where the various power conduits in every vehicle are located, or unless industry standardizes locations on a vehicle, you could add a bit of extra shock when you're trying to tear someone out of the car. So far there's relatively few models and most keep all of the high current stuff all under the hood, but it's not impossible that the battery will be up front with individual electric motors per wheel, or a motor in the back, or perhaps the electric heater might be located in the passenger compartment...

      • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:5, Insightful)

        by GameboyRMH (1153867) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {hmryobemag}> on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:23PM (#38307318) Journal

        Oh I know. Just like I know that nuclear power is actually relatively safe. But the fact is that electric cars (more specifically giant lithium batteries) are a technology that people are antsy about, and now there's been an accident (fully preventable if they followed the instructions of course), and a cover up. What do you think's going to happen?

      • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Amouth (879122) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:39PM (#38307572)

        to me it isn't so much as because it's "new" but rather because it is delayed.. in a normal car wreck if you have a fire it happens then.. not 3 weeks after the car was repaired.

        I'd agree there is zero worry if it takes a puncture of the battery pack to cause this as that should be caught in inspection before it is sent out as repaired. what does bother me is the chance of it happening with the battery pack only experiencing a physical shock with zero outside indicators of damage. I want to know the real % chances of that happening.. if it is 50% then we have a problem.. my bet though is this isn't really an issue..

        • by StikyPad (445176) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @05:34PM (#38308364) Homepage

          to me it isn't so much as because it's "new" but rather because it is delayed.. in a normal car wreck if you have a fire it happens then.. not 3 weeks after the car was repaired.

          Right, I'd much rather have the fire break out while I'm trapped unconscious and injured in my vehicle immediately following an accident.

      • by roc97007 (608802)

        I think part of the reason it was blown out of proportion was that a cover-up attempt was made. Had they come clean immediately and made the point you just made, the story would have died out almost immediately.

      • The problem is that the electric fire will not start right away so if it gets toed to a garage for repairs it could catch fire and torch the cars next to it. If the car is brought home the house could be burnt down along with the people in it. GM and NHTSA's reluctance to even warn owners of the potential danger is criminal if anything had happened. It's not that they are new that is a problem it is that they can catch fire at will after an accident, with a gas car you know that once the car has cooled d
    • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:4, Informative)

      by DesScorp (410532) <DesScorpNO@SPAMGmail.com> on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:29PM (#38307406) Homepage Journal

      RIP once more, electric car. Dig you up in 20 years once the fallout of this conspiracy washes away. :-(

      Conspiracy? Please. Try reality.

      There's no conspiracy here against electric cars. Compared to gas powered vehicles, they suck. It really is as simple as that. The technology for electric cars just isn't there yet, no matter how hard you wish it. It wasn't a conspiracy that the EV1 failed, and it's not a conspiracy that newer electric cars still stink. There is no laughing fat man in an expensive suit, lighting cigars with $100 dollar bills that's preventing electric cars from taking off. Call the rest of us back when someone makes an electric car that can go as far as a gas car, as fast as a gas car, and has passenger room and a sticker price and operating costs comparable to gas cars. When that happens, people will buy them, and companies will be in one quick hurry to sell them.

      • It was a conspiracy FOR electric cars that backfired. I know there's no conspiracy against them (unless I count the spewings of people like yourself, for whom extreme range is the only worthwhile trait of an automobile).

        • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:5, Informative)

          by bzipitidoo (647217) <bzipitidoo@yahoo.com> on Thursday December 08, 2011 @07:33PM (#38309712) Journal

          Be a bit more discriminating in your criticisms. Electric drive is awesome. It's way, way better than ICE. No gears, no hunting around for sweet spots in the RPM/torque characteristics, smoother power, far quieter, instantly starts, much more durable, simpler, cheaper, smaller, lighter, needs much less maintenance, and no smelly, polluting, unhealthy exhaust from a tailpipe. Railroads have been using diesel electric engines for decades, for many of those reasons. Having personally used an electric mower (plugin, no battery), I don't want to go back to the combustion engine mower. The advantages are so worth the big disadvantage of being tied to an extension cord. I've worked out ways to cope with that; it's not that bad.

          The batteries are the problem with it all. The gas tank is by far the simpler, cheaper, faster, and more durable energy storage method. If we ever get batteries or fuel cells sorted out, the combustion engine will very quickly become a quaint relic of the past.

          Or perhaps we could figure a way to electrify our roads. Works for subways.

      • by Patch86 (1465427)

        I think he meant the conspiracy in TFA. That is, the fairly scandalous cover up of a safety hazard by a government agency to shore up a company's sales.

        I wonder which low life official got a corporate back hander for that one.

        • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:5, Informative)

          by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland@@@yahoo...com> on Thursday December 08, 2011 @06:34PM (#38309088) Homepage Journal

          Except I don't think it's true.

          "Part of the reason for delaying the disclosure was the "fragility of Volt sales" up until that point, according to Joan Claybrook, a former administrator at NHTSA.

          "NHTSA could have put out a consumer alert," he said, according to industry website"

          A) Joan Claybrook hasn't been with NHTSA since 81
          B) That blurb really makes no sense where it is in the article. It looks like it was added later. Sloppy writing, to say the least
          C) The got her gender wrong. Again sloppy. Maybe a typo.
          D) The writer makes everything alarmist, and intentional uses alarmist phrasing.

          Conclusion: I can't really trust the author or this article.

      • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:5, Informative)

        by Spoke (6112) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @05:55PM (#38308666)

        My primary car is an electric car, the Nissan LEAF. The price is comparable to other cars and the ride quality and low noise while driving is better than just about all vehicles out there except luxury vehicles. Fuel costs are half the price of the most efficient gas car on the market, the Toyota Prius at about $0.04 / mile compared to $0.09 / mile. Compared to your typical gas car fuel costs are 1/4 to 1/3rd the cost.

        Top speed is over 90 mph, more than fast enough for any public highway and seats up to 5 passengers comfortably. Instant torque when you press the accelerator can't be beat by any internal combustion engine.

        The only drawback is somewhat limited range and long recharge times, but after 6 months of ownership it's only prevented me from using the LEAF once - but with a DC quick charge station in some strategic locations it wouldn't have been an issue.

        Electric cars are here now - Nissan has sold over 20,000 LEAFs so far this year - the best selling EV in the world - and they still don't offer it in all 50 states here in the US.

        Will the current crop of EVs work for all people? No - and I certainly wouldn't recommend the LEAF for those that don't. There are plenty of hybrids out there that get great fuel economy and the plug-in hybrid Volt is a great way to minimize your gasoline consumption if you suffer from range anxiety.

      • Re:Ohhhh shit (Score:4, Insightful)

        by RearNakedChoke (1102093) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @06:04PM (#38308786)

        Call the rest of us back when someone makes an electric car that can go as far as a gas car, as fast as a gas car, and has passenger room and a sticker price and operating costs comparable to gas cars. When that happens, people will buy them, and companies will be in one quick hurry to sell them.

        Really? You want a new technology to match or beat EVERYTHING of the old tech right now, including the price? If everyone had your attitude, we'd still be using CRT TVs. The first plasma displays were ridiculously expensive and performed worse than CRTs (worse contrast ratios).

        But over time as people began to adopt them, R&D and economies of scale improved so that their performance as well as price improved. Its an iterative process fueled by the gradual increasing support of the new technology. Electric cars cannot match ICE cars now at every metric. No new tech can, cars or otherwise.

        But electric cars could easily have a place in society. Most daily driving IS short distance runs. Even most commutes are under 50 miles one way. And many households have more than 1 car. Its conceivable to own 1 electric car for the daily short runs and keep the gasoline car for the occasional long distance hauls. I think as a whole, gas consumption would be reduced significantly. I know for my situation, it would be reduced 95% at a huge cost savings.

      • by trawg (308495)

        They might suck for you, but there are those of us (like one of the people that replied saying they have a LEAF) who would love to be able to buy an electric car today because they perfectly match our requirements.

        I'm happy to admit they're not for everyone. I know people that live an hour away from the office and commute every day. One of them is in my office (here in .au), one of them is my uncle who lives in Pacifica, CA. Both of them live where they do because they like the location and don't mind the d

    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      by RocketRabbit (830691)

      Unfortunately it will take a better company than the welfare case GM to build one that is any good.

    • by Gilmoure (18428)

      Shouldn't cars be fusion powered in 20 years?

  • How does a crackpot theory like this make the front page? What's next JFK assassination theories or little green men tucked in freezers in Area 51?

    Just a little bit of professional editorial work, that's all I ask.

    • Calling this a "crackpot theory" is just plain naïveté. All of human history, including American history, is rife with this type of corruption.

    • by khallow (566160) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @05:16PM (#38308072)
      There are two things to note about this story. First, it's reported in the BBC. That's a very good sign that it actually happened as the BBC story said it happened. Second, there's huge incentives for the Obama administration to play softball on this issue, namely, that General Motors is a favored company due to its bailout status and because electric vehicles are a pet project as well.

      However you spin this "crackpot theory", it remains that the Obama administration has a peculiar list of priorities which often show up in ugly ways.
  • by Shivetya (243324) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:20PM (#38307262) Homepage Journal

    and took the loss to get it off the books. Then perhaps we could have been freed of these shenanigans. I know, I know, yeah it would have tanked the share price and cost other investors money but those investors purchased their shares knowing full well that government had no long term investment need.

    Instead we see politics as usual. From having GE (no taxes, many WH meetings) agree to buy a large number of these cars, we have the Toyota witch hunt earlier this year (even NASA's help could not find fault), and we have the battery issue where three batteries caught fire (one three weeks after a wreck, one a week after a simulated wreck, and one hours after a simulated wreck)

    We have GM sitting on nearly thirty billion in cash, hell they should buy their shares back. Oh wait, they are sitting on it because there is a fear they won't be able to properly fund the pensions for certain unions.

    The reason this battery issue is important is not just to those driving, but to those in the accident with these cars and those responding to the accidents. Whether they are first responders or the wrecker crews. I would have to assume there is a large amount of technical documentation for hazardous waste clean up, hell we freak out over diesel spills can you imagine full penetration of one of these battery packs?

    Another Administration and no real change; unless you count whose pockets the money goes in, it always comes out of ours.

    • can you imagine full penetration of one of these battery packs?

      We're getting pretty close to rule 34 [xkcd.com] territory with that statement.

  • Fortunately, every other vehicle on the road is made of granite and thus incapable of catching fire...
    • by trout007 (975317)

      Usually when you crash your car and it's going to catch fire it happens relatively soon. With the Volt it can look fine after a crash and then a few weeks later burst into flames in your garage.

    • The cute little car that's made out of clay!

  • Just where does it say "a minor impact?" For the battery to start a fire, it has to be punctured, and that is no "minor impact." In addition, the fires that occured in the NHTSA test happened days and in one case weeks after the crash test.

    Compare this to the infernal fireball that you get seconds after you puncture a gas tank.

    The only place a Volt will catch fire is in the scrap yard after it has been totaled provided that some moron didn't discharge the battery before throwing it on the scrap heap.

    • Re:Excuse me? (Score:5, Informative)

      by 0123456 (636235) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:24PM (#38307334)

      Compare this to the infernal fireball that you get seconds after you puncture a gas tank.

      Dude, you should watch less action movies.

      Hint: in the real world, gasoline cars rarely explode when you fire a pistol at them.

      • Re:Excuse me? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Nidi62 (1525137) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:39PM (#38307578)

        Dude, you should watch less action movies.

        Hint: in the real world, gasoline cars rarely explode when you fire a pistol at them.

        Not only that, but even shooting a full tank with tracer rounds will not make the tank explode. The heat and pressure needed to make a tank of gas explode is found more commonly in Michael Bay films than it is in an auto accident. Unless of course everyone started driving Pintos again

        • by pz (113803)

          The problem, as I understand it, is that gasoline isn't very flammable in liquid state. Yes, you can get it to burn, but it's kind of hard to do that. In its gaseous state, however, nicely mixed with O2, there's a strong propensity for going boom (to paraphrase Marvin the Martian). Liquid gasoline in a tank isn't much of an explosion hazard. Finely misted or vaporized, and appropriately dispersed gasoline is another issue entirely.

          • by Jesus_666 (702802)
            The same applies to just about anything. Have you ever seen what happens when some joker decides to have a smoke in a mill? My father used to be in charge of workplace safety for a company that had one (a mill, not an idiot who set it on fire) and he had a large catalog of materials and their behavior in aerosol form. It could mostly be summed up as "nasty when exposed to fire".

            Anything more-or-less flammable when powdered can become really nasty once dispersed in air. Gasoline has the properties of being
      • Dude, you obviously haven't studied crash safety.

        Let's look look at a famous crash test from the 1970's: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgOxWPGsJNY&feature=endscreen&NR=1 [youtube.com]

        I don't mean to single out the Pinto. It was, in fact , typical of many 1970's cars which had fuel tanks mounted behind the rear axle. Cars today are much safer.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        But certain cars explode easily when they're in an accident. Ford's Crown Vic and Pinto, one of Chevy's pickup trucks. As to the 1/4 tank of gas, it won't explode but when it leaks all over the pavement and there's a spark there's no "boom" but there certainly is a WOOSH. Personally, I'd rather be killed instantly in an impact or by shrapnel than slowly roasted over a gasoline fire.

      • by DesScorp (410532)

        Compare this to the infernal fireball that you get seconds after you puncture a gas tank.

        Dude, you should watch less action movies.

        Hint: in the real world, gasoline cars rarely explode when you fire a pistol at them.

        There are quite a few auto accidents that involve puncturing the gas tank and the leaking of said fuel that don't involve fire. Just like standing behind your car door won't protect you from gunfire, busting the gas tank doesn't automatically mean a fireball. IIRC, I've read before that most auto fires were caused by either electrical problems or lubricants on/in the engine block catching, not the gas tank itself. Even electric cars have lubricants, and of course, they darn sure have electrical systems.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by wizzerking (1036902)
      Have you not watched Mythbusters ??? Only if a stream of gas comes out of a tank, and pools will it burn. THERE IS NO CHANCE OF AN EXPLOSION WHEN THE GAS TANK IS 1/4 OR MORE FULL Stopping thinking like hollywood, and go watch mythbusters, or get an engineering degree.
    • by Cosgrach (1737088)

      Not so. For a battery to start a fire (your words), it need not be punctured. All you need to do is draw more current than the wiring is capable of carrying. Wires heat up, and then you get a fire. However, if you discharge the battery at a rate greater than the battery is designed for it is possible that it may explode or catch fire. Generally they just swell up.

      And you do not always get a fireball when you puncture a gasoline take either - an ignition source MUST be present to ignite gas.

  • Double standards (Score:5, Interesting)

    by qbast (1265706) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:26PM (#38307370)
    And on the other hand the same NHTSA was all too happy to jump all over Toyota when some morons could not remember which pedal is for braking.
    • by PortHaven (242123)

      As hard as it may have been to reproduce. The error did exist.

      I experienced it myself. Not from pressing down a petal, but as I lifted my foot UP from the petal, my Prius began to accelerate.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Toyota. Funny name that. Almost sounds... foreign. Not like General Motors.

      Of course, Chevrolet is a French name.

      What's that other little American transportation related saying? Something about Boeing?

    • by geekoid (135745)

      A there was a problem. Toyota even fixed it.

      Joan hasn't been involved with the NHTSA for 30 years. Also, I can only find what appear to be an out of context quote.

  • Electric Pinto? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dunnius (1298159) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:35PM (#38307504)
    Cool, another Pinto, but electric this time. I'm sure the story is overblown, but anything that stores energy is going to be a fire risk.
    • by BlueStrat (756137)

      Cool, another Pinto, but electric this time. I'm sure the story is overblown, but anything that stores energy is going to be a fire risk.

      Must be why we've heard so much about all those Soapbox Racers with their stored kinetic energy going up in flames.

      Oh, wait...

      Strat

  • Joan ClayBrook was head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the Carter administration from 1977 to 1981
    30 years ago.

    So,it's an opinion from someone who has no insight to the details.

It is the quality rather than the quantity that matters. - Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. - A.D. 65)

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