The latest on Chevy Volt and Toyota issues
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Time for an update on two vehicles whose problems have been in the news, the Chevy Volt and Toyota…
No Volt has caught fire as the result of a crash outside of a testing setting, but as we reported last month, two Volt batteries caught fire after the vehicles they were in were involved in crash tests. In one the fire started a week after the crash, in the other the delay was three weeks; in both cases the batteries had not been drained of energy after being stored, which is the recommended safety procedure for an electric vehicle involved in a crash.
After an investigation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it did not find a safety defect in the Volt and “issued new guidelines for how emergency personnel and tow truck operators should deal with electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids that have been damaged in severe accidents,” according to a report by Jerry Hirsch in the Los Angeles Times. Hirsch adds General Motors “is adding structural reinforcement that better protects the [Volt] battery pack from punctures or a coolant leak in a severe side crash.” A coolant leak resulting from crash damage caused electrical shorts that led to the fires in the test vehicles.
The Associated Press reports the NHTSA did not order a recall on the Volts, but GM is voluntarily retrofitting the 12,000 vehicles that have already been sold or put on the market. NHTSA officials say they don’t believe electric cars are at a greater risk of a fire than gasoline-powered vehicles.
The NHTSA has also been involved in investigating reports of sudden unintended acceleration in various Toyota models. In December a firm that has been critical of NHTSA’s investigation, Safety Research & Strategies, filed suit to gain access to agency records, and this week it did so again, with an accusation that NHTSA was covering up a demonstrated acceleration defect. From the SR&S blog:
In mid-May, two engineers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation witnessed a 2003 Prius, owned by a high-ranking government official, accelerate on its own several times while on a test drive with the owner, without interference from the floor mat, without a stuck accelerator pedal or the driver’s foot on any pedal.
“They said: Did you see that?” the Prius owner recalled in a sworn statement. “This vehicle is not safe, and this could be a real safety problem.”
They videotaped these incidents, excited that, at long last, they had caught a Toyota in the act of unintended acceleration, with a clear electronic cause. The engineers downloaded data from the vehicle during at least one incident when the engine raced uncommanded in the owner’s garage and admonished the owner to preserve his vehicle, untouched, for further research.
But three months later, the agency decided that there was no problem at all. The agency thanked the Prius owner for his time and said that it was not interested in studying his vehicle. This critical discovery was never made public. The agency did not even put this consumer complaint into its complaint database, until months later, at the request of Safety Research & Strategies.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last year, “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.” But SR&S president Sean Kane said McClelland’s Prius tells a different story:
For years now, Toyota has been telling the public that there are no causes of unintended acceleration in their vehicles beyond floor mats, sticky pedals and confused drivers. NHTSA has stood by their side nodding in agreement. The two have repeatedly told consumers that the incidents they have reported – as they have reported them – could not have happened. Mr. McClelland’s Prius and the NHTSA investigation of his unintended acceleration put the lie to all of that. Unintended Acceleration in Toyota vehicles continues to this day, and the public has a right to know why.
SR&S has filed a Freedom of Information Act suit to gain access to the materials related to the McClelland vehicle test. New York Times reporter Bill Vlasic wrote McClelland did not respond to the Times’ requests for an interview but had said in his sworn statement he was told by NHTSA investigators his vehicle’s age (2003 model) and high mileage (280,000 miles) were the probable causes of his problems.
An NHTSA response to the Times said the agency would not reopen its investigation into Toyota unintended acceleration issues: “the exhaustive 10-month study made clear there are two mechanical causes of sudden, high-speed unintended acceleration in certain Toyota vehicles: pedal entrapment and sticky pedals.” The statement went on today, “NHTSA concluded that the speed of the [McClelland] vehicle could easily be controlled by the brakes. In contrast to other UA [unintended acceleration] complaints, the vehicle displayed ample warning lights for the driver indicating the car had encountered problems.”
Is NHTSA saying that it is acceptable for a vehicle to have an uncommanded acceleration as long as there are some flashing lights and the vehicle is controlled by the brake (or in this case, was able to shift into Neutral)? What about all the drivers too surprised by the complete unpredictability of their Toyota to effectively apply the brake or shift in time? Or the drivers who don’t have enough time and distance to bring the vehicle to a safe stop? What about the instances in which the throttle opening is larger, and control of the brakes much harder than it was in the McClelland vehicle? If this sort of vehicle behavior is acceptable, what, exactly, is considered unacceptable by this taxpayer-funded, federal, safety agency?
Meanwhile, in a report on The Huffington Post, reporter Sharon Silke Carty wrote that a NASA report last year that was seen by Toyota and NHTSA official as exonerating the vehicles’ electrical systems actually included “details that safety experts construe as disturbing evidence of problems potentially afflicting the electronic systems governing the gas pedal — problems that Toyota and the highway safety agency have so far dismissed”:
Investigators found so-called tin whiskers — which grow on tin when it is electrified and can conduct electricity to unintended places — inside the electronic systems in Toyota Camry gas pedals, according to the report. These wiry fibers of metal are thinner than a human hair and can sprout unpredictably. They have been implicated in crippling defects besetting a range of equipment, including communications satellites, pacemakers, missiles and nuclear power plants.
Carty acknowledged tin whiskers had not been identified as the cause of any Toyota fatal crashes, but “the mere confirmed presence of tin whiskers demands deeper investigation before such a causal link can be ruled out.”