Stephen Smoot

Last week, the Obama Administration sought to increase the Chevrolet Volt purchaser tax credit from $7,500 to $10,000.

All this for a car so dangerous to first responders that the Department of Energy allocated $4.4 million dollars for programs to prevent fire fighters from electrocuting themselves while trying to rescue crash victims.

The troubled Chevy Volt has been bedeviled by safety issues since it rolled onto the market. Environmentalists expected it to be one of the cornerstones of a cultural move towards low or no emissions vehicles. Instead, it became something between a punch line born of unfulfilled expectations and a real threat to consumers.

According to industry expert Gary Howell of Howell Automotive, one of the problems lies with the batteries that power the vehicle. “The lithium-ion used in modern electric cars are not like the old lead-acid batteries of the past. They are more powerful and, when damaged, the fluid inside can leak out, creating a short on the circuit boards that are used to control the batteries. The fluid dries and crystallizes, creating a short, sometimes weeks after the damage to the battery occurred.”

This results in spontaneous fires, such as happened in a Volt three weeks after a crash test at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As late as last December, General Motors remained publicly optimistic about the Volt, having sold around 6,200 units. This is far short of the million electric and hybrid cars that Barack Obama wanted on the roads by 2015.

Some question the influence of the federal government. Howell stated that “With any new technology there is a learning curve. The government’s ownership in GM forced a car and technology that was not ready for the marketplace into the market. Cars bursting into flames is the result.”

Another problem lies in the construction of the car itself. Last year, the National Fire Protection Agency started a program of state level trainings focusing on how first responders can safely deal with the new problems posed by the Chevy Volt and other cars of similar design. The NFPA in a press release estimates that over 10,000 first responders have taken at least some training in dealing with the dangers of cars like the Volt.

The General Motors Service Technical College provides technical materials to first responders around the country. Just this week, their publication on the Volt was cited by a Baltimore County, Maryland Fire Service Special Interest Bulletin. After a bizarre paragraph extolling the virtues of the car itself, the bulletin gets down to the business of informing fire fighters of how to not kill themselves trying to rescue a crash victim.

It states:

“There is a yellow First Responder cable “cut” tag wrapped around the low volt positive battery cable behind the fuse panel door, located on the left side of the rear compartment (see diagram on next page). This cable should be cut first to disable the vehicle safely before beginning any extrication. The cable should be cut on both sides of the label to ensure the cut cable ends do not inadvertently touch and re-energize the vehicle.”

General Motors also warns that “cutting these cables can result in serious injury or death.”

Hence the need for spending $4.4 million in taxpayer money to train firefighters across the country to protect themselves from a car that the government paid people $7,500 per unit to purchase.

Despite the hype surrounding the vehicle and extensive training on how to safely remove crash victims from it, consumers still did not want to buy the Volt. Because of disappointing sales, General Motors will suspend production of the Volt until at least April 23.

Howell, also a delegate to the West Virginia State Legislature, offers a solution. “The government needs to stop trying to dictate what people should drive and let people purchase what they want. If we were to open up domestic energy production we would not be talking about electric cars at all.”


Stephen Smoot

Dr. Stephen A. Smoot is a columnist, historian, political adviser, and media expert. He lives with his family in West Virginia.