GM offers loaners to Chevy Volt owners worried about battery fire risk

Battery powered for the first 25 to 50 miles after charging up, the revolutionary, electric-powered Chevy Volt GM

General Motors, apparently moving into damage control, is offering free loaner cars to Chevrolet Volt owners if they are concerned about reports of Volt battery fires after crash tests. GM reiterated its belief that the Volt is a safe car but said it will contact all Volt owners to make the free loaner offer.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a formal safety investigation into fire dangers of the  Volt. This move came after the agency replicated an incident from last May in which a Volt battery caught fire three weeks after going through a safety crash test. In three tests last week, technicians damaged the Volt batteries in a similar way; one battery caught fire, and two showed signs of overheating.

NHTSA said it had no reports of fires from real-world crashes. And the agency said in a statement: "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 foreign oil."

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General Motors said in a statement it was working with NHTSA on additional testing and also was monitoring all the Volts on the road. With its OnStar emergency communications system, the company said it "knows in real time about any crash significant enough to potentially compromise battery integrity."

Electric vehicles crucial

GM and other auto makers have a lot at stake in the safety of the lithium-ion batteries used in the Volt. Electrics are an essential part of their strategy to meet tough federal gas-mileage standards that call for fleet averages of 35 MPG by 2016 and 54 MPG by 2025. New technologies like electric vehicles get special credits in those calculations.

Volt competitor Nissan Leaf uses similar batteries but has not had fire problems in NHTSA crash tests. Ford and Mitsubishi are bringing out electric models next year that also will use the lithium-ion batteries.

Top crash ratings

In earlier, separate crash tests, both Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf received the Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety after scoring well in tests for front, side, rear and rollover accidents. No special battery problems emerged in those tests. The Leaf is an all-electric vehicle, but the Volt has a backup gasoline generator.

In its statement, NHTSA offered some advice for current owners of electric cars involved in accidents.

-- Exit the vehicle carefully if possible just as in a gasoline-powered car, which of course also poses fire danger in a crash.

-- Emergency responders should take note if a vehicle is electric and disconnect the battery pack if possible.

-- Tow-truck operators and salvage yards should store damaged electrics outside, not inside a closed building. (All fires in the NHTSA tests ignited weeks after the initial damage).

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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