The burned crash tested Chevy Volt from last June

GM's Akerson says Chevy Volt not designed to be a political punching bag

A politically charged Congressional Hearing this morning questioned the NHTSA's integrity following the Chevy Volt crash test fire last summer, with Administrator Strickland bearing the brunt of Rep. Jordan's angry questioning.

In a politically charged Congressional Hearing held today, the safety of the Chevy Volt, and the integrity of the NHTSA, was called into question by members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The sometimes heated hearing gave both the NHTSA and GM an opportunity to defend their investigation and response to last summers Chevy Volt crash test fire.

The hearing began with NHTSA Director David Strickland, testifying on the NHTSA's investigation, and it was Strickland who received the brunt of attacks by some committee members, primarily the Chairman Rep. Jordan, Rep. Mike Kelly, and Rep. Issa (all Republicans). Stricklands testimony was followed by GM's CEO Dan Akerson, testifying on GM's role, GM's resurgence as a company, and the history of the Volt project. Those two were followed by John German, a Senior Fellow with the Council on Clean Transportation who gave testimony on the CAFE Standards negotiation as well as the background of lithium ion battery safety.

While several talked about the politically charged scene none captured it better than GM's CEO Akerson when he said GM's engineers had not designed the Chevy Volt to be a political punching bag.

While a huge variety of topics were discussed, a thread throughout the hearing was the sense of Trust being Violated. Specifically Trust in the Integrity of the NHTSA in their handling of the Chevy Volt fire controversy. The elements of the eroded trust were represented by the sort of questions asked, which appear here in bold.

What did the NHTSA know and when did they know it? What was the timeline of discovering the cause of the fire? Why did it take six months before disclosing the fire to the public? Both NHTSA's Strickland and GM's Akerson answered these questions to show there was no wrong-doing, but their answers did not appear to satisfy Rep's Jordan, Kelly or Issa each of whom repeatedly hammered Strickland and to a lesser extent Akerson.

Disclosure to the public of the Chevy Volt crash test fire occurred with a November 11 Bloomberg News article, and was closely followed by announcements from NHTSA and GM. Rep. Jordan described this as NHTSA holding out on making an announcement until being "outed" by Bloomberg's report. However NHTSA Administrator Strickland maintained that the NHTSA was very close to making their announcement anyway, and that NHTSA's personnel had worked with Bloomberg's reporters on ensuring the facts were reported correctly. Strickland went on to describe that prior to November 11 they were involved with preliminary pre-investigation work necessary to discover just how severe was the risk posed by this one fire. The NHTSA has a statutory duty to disclose risks to the public, but that statutory duty also extends to determining actual risk before disclosing a risk to the public. In other words, the NHTSA's role is not to shout FIRE in a crowded theater if there's no actual fire, but to only disclose actual risks based on data they collect from investigations.

Administrator Strickland explained it would have been illegal for NHTSA to disclose a risk if there was no actual risk.

See Chevy Volt fire: What did NHTSA know and when did they know it? for details on the work by NHTSA investigators to devise new test procedures to test the battery pack in isolation from the Volt. The NHTSA never does "component-level testing", instead they always test whole vehicles. Because they had been unable to replicate the fire, even after crash testing several more cars in September 2011, the investigation team proceeded to "component level testing" of the battery pack. This required designing test procedures and building equipment, with the tests occurring in mid-November. GM's Akerson characterized those tests as "impaling" the battery pack to puncture it, then drenching the pack in coolant while rotating the pack through several positions. Meaning the tests in November and December were designed to artificially induce the flaw (punctured battery pack, and leaked coolant fluid) identified by the forensic investigation between May and November. Even having artificially induced the flaw, it took a week for the tested battery packs to catch fire. While investigators proved they could cause the Volt battery pack to catch fire, it was in an artificial situation.

This explanation of the timeline before publicly disclosure of the fire was not good enough for Rep's Jordan and Issa. In one exchange Rep. Issa demanded why GM's executives hadn't flown in, fully briefed, 3 minutes after learning of the fire back in June. If this, three minutes worth of investigation to understand the cause, is Rep. Issa's criteria for NHTSA being a credible agency, it looks like an impossible criteria to meet. As both Akerson and Strickland explained, in June it wasn't clear what the cause of the fire. It could have been arson, the fire could have started with another vehicle in the storage lot, was it a bad test, and they hadn't torn down the burnt Volt to determine why or how it caught fire. How could NHTSA or GM have credibly warned the public over risks when there was little data about what had occurred?

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