Electronics & Test
Chevy Volt Battery Fires: Experts Say Engineers Managing Risks Properly

< Previous   Image 2 of 2   

The cooling system in the Chevy Volt's battery was designed to handle the potential temperature instabilities of lithium-ion batteries.   (Photo courtesy of GM.)
The cooling system in the Chevy Volt's battery was designed to handle the potential temperature instabilities of lithium-ion batteries.
(Photo courtesy of GM.)

< Previous   Image 2 of 2   

Return to Article

View Comments: Newest First|Oldest First|Threaded View
<<  <  Page 2/4  >  >>
User Rank
Re: When do they catch fire?
ricardo   12/5/2011 5:04:00 PM
Rod, according to Hollywood, your Pinto experience is not typical.  If you do a survey of all car crashes in films or on TV, all car crashes result in fire & an explosion.  This is specially true if you are a bad guy.

User Rank
Risk Managed? I don't think so
oldtimer8080   12/5/2011 3:42:30 PM
Remember, when GM first tested airbags, the prototypes kept decapitating the dummies.


The danger of any exotic chemical batteries and energy cells is well known. The Bolder TMF cell can do a similar job powering hybrids...Remember the Chrysler EXS created some time ago? Bolder uses a LEAD ACID combination with plastic shielding isolating EVERY CELL in the pack. That cell system was used in the ESX. No fires, no leakage except from the damaged cells in a collision...The amount of standard car battery electrolyte is contained in the matrix. No more than a few drops per cel actually leaks out.


Contrast that to the problems the ( re) VOLT (ing) has.


Used regular materials in power pack construction and the problem goes away.


Too bad the company got outsourced to the pacific rim....

User Rank
75% destruction rate
Grunchy   12/5/2011 12:57:23 PM
I heard that of 4 Chevrolet Volts involved in crash testing, 3 ended up burning down.  75% suffered total destruction.  Of course I'm not sure I believe that, if Chevrolet conducted the crash tests and got those kinds of results then I'm sure they wouldn't have released the car for production.

User Rank
relative danger
lchien52   12/5/2011 12:14:42 PM
anytime you sit in a vehicle that has enough stored enegery to propel a 4000+ pound object some 300 miles you are taking a risk.

Fortunately gasoline is a fairly safe fuel - its hard to ignite in bulk liquid form, msotly the vapors are extremely volatile.

The lithium is also hazardous, shorts created by physical shocks in abnormal conditions like collisions risk igniting the batteries. Apparently damage to the cooling system can also cause delayed fires - this is particularly worrisome because circulation cooling systems are active whereas all the gas tank protection is primarily passive in nature.

I guess we'll know a little farther down the road.

Manwhile, is it true that GM has only sold 6-10,000 of the very hyped Volts? Are they on track saleswise?

User Rank
All vehicle technololgies are inherently dangerous
bdcst   12/5/2011 12:08:32 PM
I'd also like to add that many automotive fires have been caused by far lower energy density storage devices, namely the lead acid battery!  While the battery itself may have had few ignition issues the vehicle wiring has had plenty.  A short in a starter motor solenoid can result in an overheating starter motor and/or its power cable.  Fusable links in many instances have not opened on time.  With the trend to thinner and thinner wiring to reduce vehicle weight and the talk about raising the bus voltage to 24 or 48 volts to further reduce losses, the peak fault currents will rise even for non electric drive vehicles.

Regardless of the energy source, the density and amount of "fuel" required to power a practical vehicle will always be dangerous.  However, it is kinetic energy that poses the biggest threat to a vehicle's inhabitants.

Rob Spiegel
User Rank
Re: When do they catch fire?
Rob Spiegel   12/5/2011 11:49:47 AM
I agree NRDW,

While GM's buyback on the Chevy Volt looks like a decent move, is some ways it's also ominous. What does it say about GM's confidence in the vehicle?

User Rank
Re: When do they catch fire?
NRDW   12/5/2011 11:43:08 AM
I understand your question.  Is there a significant risk to the consumer, like there was with the Pinto?  Others appear to have missed the point.  It is interesting that there have already been 3 fires, with so few sold.  However, the question should not be asked if there is an issue with the Chevy Volt Lithium-Ion batteries but if there is an issue with all electric/hybrid  cars with large battery systems.  Lithium-ion batteries were not stable enough to be used in consumer products until very recently.  Before this, they we would explode above 70 degrees F.  Consumers tend to think batteries are benign things - safe.  They are energy storage devices and if mistreated can hurt people.  They do catch fire and when they do, they burn hot.  They also explode and they tend to explode in a cascading fashion.

To me for Chevy to be willing to buy back the vehicles from worried purchasers means that GM is starting to pay attention to customer reaction; after all GM has a reputation of putting vehicles on the road and letting the customer find the bugs for them.

User Rank
Re: When do they catch fire?
gunslingor   12/5/2011 11:11:39 AM
I don't disagree with all you state, I agree that if done appropriately, electrics will always be safer than a compairable gasoline car. Ultimately, any basic safety analysis would start with a comparison of energy density and volitility, both of which are higher with gasoline right now and probably will continue to be for the next 10 years... though batteries are improving.

Yes, my states aren't 100% comparable, you'd have to reduce everything and make it a per capita comparison. But still, one can look at this data and make a general order of magnitude comparison to draw the conclusions I did. If you disagree with the conclusions, then do the hard math and challenge them.... but I suspect your just challenging my methods and not my conclusions in which case I agree and attribute the problem to laziness.

I do disagree with the claim of "catostrophic failure" of lithum batteries when they fail. Again, an honest attempt at quick comparison, worst case senarios only: When a lithum battery falses, we end up with a short which could catch fire assuming the cooling system fails. When a gasoline tank fails, say in the case of the pino, gas leaks onto a hot surface, igntites, and could potentially ignitude the gas tank (it does happen though rarely) and you get an explosion. An explosion is obviously more dangerous than a fire in most circumstances. I could honestly say that a gasoline powered car could, theoreticaly, be more safer than an electric, but it would require greater isolation than their lithium battery counterparts due to energy density. They could cordin off the gas tank into isolated sections, but to pass the safety rating of electrics, it would have to contain more isolation. Generally, lithum batterys do not fail "catastrophically"... I mean, can you name one catastrophy that has resulted from a lithum battery failure? It all goes back to energy density.

Rob Spiegel
User Rank
Re: When do they catch fire?
Rob Spiegel   12/5/2011 11:02:41 AM
Hi John,

Popular Mechanics did a brief analysis of the Pinto program last year:


Basically it was a design flaw that left the car more susceptible to fire in a rear-end collision. I was read-ended while driving a Pinto. The car was totaled, but no fire.

User Rank
Re: When do they catch fire?
3drob   12/5/2011 10:52:30 AM
I agree that gasoline powered cars are not safe.  But your statistics are not relevent.  The Volt hasn't been out a full production year, and there are only 0.006 *10^6 of them on the road.  This is compared with 255 * 10^6 gasoline powered passenger vehicles.  The real statistical comparison is by miles traveled (especially since the Volt has a much smaller range than gas powered vehicles).  We don't have the numbers yet to really know.

What we do know is that lithium is inherently dangerous.  Not because you can have batteries that short out, but because when they do it's catastrophic (a reaction that feeds on itself).  This being an Engineering blog, the conversation should be about what is being done to APPLY the technology safely.  If done right, it could be much safer than gas.  If done "normally" (read with management involvement, ROI, profit margin, etc.) then I wouldn't let my family near one.

If you want safe and high efficiency, get a diesel.  Personally, I have a gas-electric hybrid with NiMH (probably has it's own defects).

<<  <  Page 2/4  >  >>
Partner Zone
Latest Analysis
Lockheed Martin is looking to a new novel alloy and casting process to cut expenses on the F-35 Lightning II -- the world's costliest fighter jet.
After impressive test results, QM Power's Q-Sync fan motor has been identified as an emerging energy-saving technology and earned additional funding from the Department of Energy.
Henn'na Hotel, a next-generation, eco-friendly hotel in Nagasaki, Japan, is staffed almost entirely by robots.
With the pace of new editions and iterations, designers can fall behind quickly on software knowledge and skills. That's where JIT software training comes in.
After more than a century of dedicated service, metals are still upping their game and delivering lighter, stronger bodies and frames to the auto industry.
Design News Webinar Series
6/25/2015 11:00 a.m. California / 2:00 p.m. New York
6/24/2015 11:00 a.m. California / 2:00 p.m. New York
6/11/2015 11:00 a.m. California / 2:00 p.m. New York
8/13/2015 11:00 a.m. California / 2:00 p.m. New York
Quick Poll
The Continuing Education Center offers engineers an entirely new way to get the education they need to formulate next-generation solutions.
Aug 3 - 7, Developing, Testing, and Troubleshooting IPv4 and IPv6 Using Wireshark
SEMESTERS: 1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6 |  7

Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.
Next Course August 25-27:
Sponsored by Stratasys
Learn More   |   Login   |   Archived Classes
Twitter Feed
Design News Twitter Feed
Like Us on Facebook

Sponsored Content

Technology Marketplace

Copyright © 2015 UBM Canon, A UBM company, All rights reserved. Privacy Policy | Terms of Service