Electric Cars Meet Setback

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Despite the millions poured into research and development, many of the electric car automakers find that making electric cars as the main platform of transportation would take a few more years in light of the new issues concerning the electric car. The new wrinkle is the latest fire with the battery packs of the Chevy Volt.

In light of this new issue, General Motors has issued an offer to purchasers of its Volt loaner cars who become worried of the safety of their vehicles pending the formal investigation conducted by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. The inquiry was spurred after two battery packs of the Volt caught fire during testing by federal regulators.

According to Mark L. Reuss, Head of G.M.’s North American Division said “Our customer’s peace of mind is too important for us for there to be any concern or worry. This technology should inspire confidence and pride, not raise any concern or doubt.”

The company added that the loaners were a gesture of goodwill not a recognition of safety concerns with the lithium-ion battery design of the Volt. This is clearly a bump on the road for the emerging technology as more and more companies start producing electric cars to the market. This issue, be it an actual or perceived safety issue, puts a cloud not only on the Volt as a product but for other electric cars already in the market.

Currently, electric cars represent a fraction of the total car market, with automakers such as G.M. selling 5,300 Volts since its inception last year, Nissan with 8,000 all-electric Leafs in the first ten months of 2011 and Tesla with just 2,000 vehicles since 2008. Comparatively, the total car market totaled 10.5 million new vehicles and nearly 99% sold were still internal combustion engine vehicles.

The timing of the safety inquiry could not come at a better time. With many companies getting on the alternative fuel car market because of the stringent environmental regulations, carmakers are scrambling to abide by the instituted by the United States and most European countries. The Obama Administration has pegged the efficiency ratio to be at 54 miles to a gallon by the year 2025. Other issues for the electric car include the limited driving range compared to the internal combustion engine and the higher overall purchase cost of the electric vehicle because of the technologies.

The focus remains on the investigation especially the stability of electric car batteries after an accident. This came after a Volt caught fire in a storage facility after undergoing crash tests. The most recent fire came last Thursday after the Volt’s battery pack was intentionally damaged a week earlier by officials of the NHTSA. While the agency said there was no evidence of fire issues in crashes that have involved the Volt, it said the tests the Volt batteries underwent were replications of real world crash scenarios that result in fire.

According to Mary T. Barra, G.M.’s Head of Global Product Development, the danger to passengers is not at the immediate period following an accident but the safety of the batteries in the days and weeks after an accident’s occurrence. With other products such as laptops and cameras and even mobile phones, the rechargeable lithium ion battery pack can store energy but can become volatile when ruptured or overheated.

She added that what is essential after a crash is the de-powering of the battery by trained service personnel. She said it’s similar to having gasoline in a tank after the car had crashed. She further added that G.M. is working closely with federal regulators on the testing to be conducted and has continued to send its engineers to all accidents that have involved a Chevy Volt.