Slow Burn: Chevy Volt Fires

That DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is always yakking about transparency – at his confirmation hearing, at budget hearings, about airline fees, and business flight plans. During the U.S. House of Representative’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration hearings in February 2010, when Congressman Ed Markey asked the Secretary of Transportation:

“What do you think about the public in terms of them providing – being provided with more information regarding potential safety defects that automakers tell the department about even before an investigation is opened or a recall is announced?

LaHood replied: “Need for transparency.  The more information we can give the public, the better.”

Unless…..the defect is really bad, and the press will be on it like white on rice and it involves a major automaker, whose fortunes are tightly entwined with the government. Yes, we’re looking at you General Motors. (Or, as some would have it, Government Motors.)

On June 2, a Chevy Volt that had been subjected to an New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) pole impact test three weeks later burst into flames. The fire, apparently caused by intrusion into the lithium ion battery which ruptured the coolant line, consumed the Volt and burned three other vehicles parked nearby in a Wisconsin storage facility. Five months later, investigators ran three more tests on the battery alone to simulate a crash impact. One of the batteries caught fire; another emitted sparks and smoke. On Black Friday, NHTSA opened a low-level defect investigation – Preliminary Evaluation (PE) 11-037 was born.

But where oh where is the documentation? The test report for the toasted Volt? The Information Request Letter to GM and other manufacturers of hybrid electric vehicles?  The subsequent battery test reports? A GM spokesman said that NHTSA worked with the automaker “for months” after the initial fire. Where’s the documentation of that?

Who needs any information? According to NHTSA everything’s just fine! Don’t be afraid to buy a Volt:

“NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles have incredible potential to save consumers money at the pump, help protect the environment, create jobs and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on oil,” the agency assured consumers as it announced the investigation.

Indeed. (Although we’re not sure a burning car actually helps the environment, not to mention those pesky batteries and coal burning power plants that power much of the grid to charge them…)

This nascent investigation is already hitting a few troubling notes.

Things to ponder:

One would expect that this high-profile and technically specific investigation would require an investigator with lots of experience in hybrid electric vehicle systems and design – or at a minimum with an electrical engineering background. Instead, the lead investigator in this sensitive investigation is a mechanical engineer fresh out of college with no apparent electrical engineering background or experience. She joined the agency one month before the Volt ignited.

Why are there no documents in the public file? NHTSA, when it deigns to release key documents at all, likes to wait until the mainstream press has moved on and is unlikely to pursue a follow-up. Really – the ink isn’t even dry on the Office of the Inspector General’s October report rapping NHTSA for its lack of transparency and documentation (see DOT Inspector General Audit Finds NHTSA Defects Office Needs Improvement but Examination Falls Short).  In levying the largest civil fine in the agency’s history against Toyota, the government neglected to provide any documentation explaining how the automaker had violated the recall regulations. In releasing the agency’s technical assessment of Toyota unintended acceleration, the agency withheld the lengthy technical report from reporters until the press conference, leaving them no time to read, let alone digest the report. Then, Mr. Transparency himself, X-Ray LaHood, had the temerity to complain that no one had read the report. It was full of unsupportable redactions. The agency got around to unscrubbing the report months later (see NHTSA Keeps Toyota’s Secrets, Part II).

When did it become acceptable for a federal regulator to give the public a sales pitch during an investigation? We saw the same odd behavior as the agency wrapped up the Toyota investigation. After effectively mischaracterizing the results of the technical review, Secretary LaHood declared:  “I told my daughter that she should buy the Toyota Sienna, which she did. So I think that illustrates that we feel that Toyota vehicles are safe to drive.”

The entity you regulate and investigate is not and cannot be your “regulatory partner.” NHTSA must maintain its objectivity and oversight authority. NHTSA, you are not on Team GM or Team Toyota; you’re the ref, and those guys are workin’ you.

We all know that the American economy needs growth and that green energy is the future, but must we trample safety, scientific objectivity and consumers in the process?

We’ve somehow lost the ability to hold corporations accountable in the name of an allegedly greater good.