Another Secret Chevy Volt Investigation?

One word journalists like to use in headlines about the all-electric Chevy Volt is “shock” – as in “Electric Shock: Is GM Really Losing $49,000 on Every Volt Sale?” and “Chevy Volt Continues to Shock and Awe After a Week on the Road” and “Chevrolet Volt: Electric sedan sends shock waves through auto industry.”

An electric vehicle is going to invite those metaphors, right? But three months ago, a driver from California made a complaint to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that was literally shocking. On December 1, the driver received what was described as a significant electric shock from the gear shifter:

“Luckily, when incident occurred, driver was able to quickly remove their point of contact from gear shifter before the hand and arm muscles had involuntarily contracted in place permanently closing the contact and resulting in further electrocution. Driver sustained significant electrical shock injury to hand/arm including pain, shock, soreness, numbness, and tingling sensation.”

The incident was immediately reported to GM, which instructed the driver to call 911 so that the local fire department could disconnect the power. Those first responders refused, because they didn’t know the system, and feared for their own safety, the complaint said.

GM had already agreed to buy back this vehicle for a host of other problems. A repair document filed with the complaint indicates that in late October, the driver took it to Paradise Chevrolet in Ventura, California, complaining that the Volt kept turning itself off and on. The automaker’s reaction to this latest, arguably more hazardous malfunction was totally warm and fuzzy, according to the complaint:

“Since incident, GM is only willing to transfer driver to their Product Allocation Department which acts in a legal capacity and accepts claim reports for further investigation. Driver’s immediate concern is not to sue GM but to insure [sic] all reasonable efforts are made to inform other Volt dealers of incident and hopefully prevent other drivers from being electrocuted.”

Has GM heeded the driver’s plea? A check for Technical Service Bulletins didn’t turn up any new alerts. Judging by a FAX cover sheet that accompanied the repair bill and a redacted medical record, the driver was in direct contact with NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation in early December. Is the agency looking into this?

The last time ODI investigated a problem with the Chevy Volt, the public found out about it after five months of secret tests and analyses. The probe was officially opened only after the agency had done nearly all of its work. As the DOT’s dear leader Ray LaHood opined at the time that the Volt was safe to drive, it seems that the agency had pretty much concluded that no defect existed. As we have noted before, NHTSA has been known to keep high-profile defect investigations under wraps by not publishing an Opening Resume until some sort of conclusion has already been reached. See: What Doesn’t NHTSA Want You to Know About Auto Safety?

To re-cap: On November 25, 2011, ODI opened an investigation into Chevy Volt fires, after one ignited at a Wisconsin storage facility in June 2011 after a crash test. The vehicle had been subjected to an NCAP oblique side pole impact, which pushed the transverse stiffener located under the driver’s seat inward, piercing the HV battery enclosure and battery, and causing a battery coolant leak. As part of the test protocol, NHTSA subjects EVs to post-crash rollover tests to look for electrolyte and fuel spillage In this case, the rollover introduced the leaking coolant to the HV battery and electronics. Three weeks later, the vehicle caught fire and burned two other vehicles.

Unbeknownst to consumers, in the five months between the fire and opening of the official investigation, NHTSA had already sifted the data looking for other incidents, had a fire contractor isolate the cause of the storage facility fire to the Volt’s battery, sent the wreck to the Vehicle Test and Research Center for a tear-down and forensic analysis, conducted a side-impact NCAP on another Volt and impact-tested three undamaged batteries from Volts used in other crash tests.

After NHTSA opened an initial Preliminary Analysis 011-037, the agency ran another series of battery pack tests “to isolate the individual effects of cell damage.” The official investigation closed less than two months later, on January 20, 2012, with no defect finding.

Nonetheless, GM agreed to conduct “a free-of-charge customer satisfaction campaign,” also known as an unregulated recall on 14,735 vehicles built before December 21, 2011. The campaign offered a strengthening of the structure of the vehicle in the area where battery intrusion occurred, adding an HV battery coolant loss sensor and control system software that alerts the driver and prevents recharging the HV battery. Finally, GM offered to add a tamper-proofing device to prevent consumers from adding coolant.

The issue of electric shock and electrocution in electric vehicles is real. In August 2010, The National Fire Protection Association and GM announced a partnership to train first responder in how to safely de-power a Volt and how to properly fight a battery fire. This training, apparently, had not yet reached the fire department in the shocked Volt driver’s town. And, last year SAE International AE International’s Hybrid Technical Committee issued technical standard “J2990—Hybrid and EV First and Second Responder Recommended Practice,” to address the unique chemical, thermal and electrical hazards associated with EVs’ high voltage systems.

Electric shock risks to drivers not poking around under the hood – that’s a new one. And it raises more questions about the Volt that surely demand answers.

Automotive electronics expert David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University Carbondale said that “the most alarming” detail of the complaint was that the dealership appeared to have verified the driver’s first claim that the Volt was turning itself on and off.

“There’s something no one can deny and that is not a normal operation,” Gilbert said. “What was in place to cause that?”

The electric shock complaint, he said, was puzzling. It takes a lot of direct current voltage to produce a significant electric shock.

“What would be the path from the shift mechanism?” he asked.

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