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NHTSA investigates the electric vehicle segment for fire risks

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation that is slated to spend the next three years investigating whether modern electric vehicles with lithium ion batteries pose a significant fire risk to consumers from overcharging.

This investigation has been launched by the NHTSA out of a concern for the future safety of consumers and not due to a fire in any electric vehicles. Many vehicles currently featuring electric propulsion or hybrid drive systems are powered by nickel hydride but the NHTSA expects that 70% of these alternative-power vehicles will feature lithium ion batteries in the next 10 years. For instance, Ford Motor Company plans to shift to lithium ion batteries in their entire electric and hybrid fleet within the next two years. This investigation was spurred by the fact that Dell recalled a large group of laptops with similar battery technology when it was found that overcharging could cause overheating and increase fire risks.

The agency’s concern is that when 400 volt lithium ion batteries reach the market in mass quantities, consumers could overcharge these high voltage batteries and while the modern electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid systems feature safeguards against this, the NHTSA feels the need to spend $8.75 million over three years to see if the next generation of electrified vehicle batteries offers an increase risk of fire. If you have ever overcharged a set of AA batteries, you know how quickly they can get very hot. Now imagine that the AA battery is a 400 bolt car battery and rather than a low voltage battery charger, you have a 240 volt charger connected to the electrical system of your home.

The NHTSA is also spending time looking at the results of various collisions on these high voltage lithium ion batteries. Kevin Vincent, chief counsel of the NHTSA said that the industry doesn’t have a good idea as whether or not these vehicles are safe after a crash. The simple crash tests of these vehicles show that they protect the driver and passengers in the case of an accident like any other car on the road but what happens when that 400 bolt battery is damaged? That is exactly the kind of question the NHTSA hopes to tackle – helping to make electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids safer as technology becomes more affordable and more available to larger groups of consumers.

This investigation should work to either confirm or improve the safety of the high tech and high voltage electric and hybrid vehicles but with the process scheduled to run into 2014 – it could be a while before we see any results.

Source: Automotive News

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Huntington Bea… (not verified)    June 15, 2011 - 11:48AM

Actually I've never thought about this issue before but it makes sense. I HAVE used rechargeable batteries before and they ALWAYS get hot when I'm done; I don't think I'm even overcharging them, just charging normally but they get really hot when done. I can't even imagine charging a battery that can power a car. Sure they are spending a ton of money for the research but it's necessary to ensure the safety of drivers.

Jonalist (not verified)    September 19, 2011 - 1:43AM

Getting hot is a serious misconception for many at NHTSA, one Alabama man made his pick-up truck energy efficient with a wood burner installation so how hot is hot to NHTSA over a sealed battery issue seems to be hot under the collar hot? Link here: Springville Alabama Inventors Wood Burning Truck (modified black 1993 Dodge Dakota) By Michael C. Bolton

Mr. Wayne Keith of Springville, Alabama drove a total of 7,388 miles to Las Vegas Bonneville Salt Flats a 2,100-mile drive, set a class world-record in his firewood-powered truck. He went 71.18 mph to break the previous record by more than 24 mph. His improved process emits zero emissions from the combustion closed system. What if this idea were used on a large scale to run internal combustion engines for electricity production at your home. No more gas pipeline threat, no more power company billings to erect poles to get their power to your location.