Editor's note: Today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Today the Chevy Volt, an American solution to pressing needs, is not being attacked by outsiders, but having to be defended from excessive and critical scrutiny by various interests in its own country that stand most to benefit from what it offers.

 

General Motors has been taking something of a beating in the public eye lately – not just from the usual politically motivated Volt critics, but even from the mainstream and automotive press.

The degree of attention the Volt has received because of a fire three weeks after a federal crash test in late May, as well as a couple other tests on stand-alone Volt batteries in November, has even those in the business amazed at the intensity of the reaction.

And that is the watchword: “reaction.”

We’d like to mention a few factors to try to put some of the issues in perspective.



 

First, it bears repeating that not one person has been injured, killed or even threatened by an electric vehicle fire. The same cannot be said following tens of thousands of conventional automotive fires through the years and it’s pretty certain that fear of the unknown is partially driving things now.

Among the latest spin-off stories to an investigation into the Volt’s battery by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are reports that a “few dozen” Volt owners have asked GM to buy back their Volts.

Further, at last report around 50 or more Volt owners have elected to take GM up on its rather liberal offer to borrow another GM vehicle while NHTSA and GM work on details that could lead to a minor battery redesign and refinement of post-crash safety protocols.

GM spokesman Rob Peterson said the company is interviewing these people on a case by case basis. GM does not have an official buy back program, he said, but it is part of GM’s stated policy to satisfy people with a do-what-it-takes attitude.

Peterson said it was his belief that a variety of customer motives could be in play as people take advantage of GM’s offer.

“I think you have people who have had legitimate concerns, some who have not enjoyed the ownership experience, some people whose financial situation has changed and some who are over on their [lease contract] miles,” Peterson said while acknowledging this was his impression. “Regardless, we’re going to try to make them whole.”

In our view at GM-Volt, we would not be surprised to learn that some people have hyped up a fear or an alleged grievance to get out of the car for less than fully honest reasons. Others no doubt are truly concerned.

We'll note also any perceived black eye GM is receiving for people accepting its offer is unjustifiably ironic and like "letting no good deed go unpunished." The company was never obligated to offer free cars and refunds just to help people feel better at this point.

In the meantime others including GM execs have talked about re-buying these Volts being ditched for a variety of reasons.

Also, a group of prominent Volt owners has issued an open letter stating they will not be returning the keys to their Volts as a show of public support. GM-Volt founder Dr. Lyle Dennis is one of these ardent supporters.

Capitalizing on the whole situation, the media has been in a feeding frenzy reaching for additional stories to tell.

For example, in an article yesterday titled, "Chevy Volt keeps top safety rating, despite fires," Automotive News wrote this leading statement:

“An influential insurance group has no plans to strip the Chevrolet Volt of its top crash safety rating or retest the vehicle, bolstering General Motors' position that its electric car is safe despite a probe of battery fires by federal regulators.”

Excuse us? Talk about a contrived news angle. Who said anything about “plans to strip the Volt?”

Fact: The Volt has received top crash-test ratings not just from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), but also NHTSA and the Euro New Car Acceptance Program.

The car was awarded these based on occupant safety during the moment of impact – not specifically fire safety, which has yet to be proven to be a real worry.

So, why would someone who covers these issues frame them with implied expectancy that the private sector IIHS might have stripped the Volt based on a federal agency’s unrelated findings?

Further, as IIHS spokesman Russ Rader pointed out in the story – after its attention-grabbing opening statements – the IIHS tests revealed no evidence of damage to the Volt's battery.

"If we had found that the battery pack had been damaged or certainly if we had subsequent concerns about fire risk – that would have raised red flags," Rader said, adding the IIHS has no plans to repeat tests in this case because its role "is not to investigate potential defects."

And aside from that, NHTSA and GM are already investigating potential defects as we well know.

Speaking of which, in a brief story that got more than usual Web traffic yesterday, AutoGuide reported that Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center of Auto Safety in Washington D.C. made an insightful observation.

He said he is “surprised that NHTSA didn’t drain the battery after crash testing as it is standard procedure to empty the fuel tank on conventional gasoline powered vehicles.”

Good question, and good job AutoGuide for reporting it.

Ditlow also said that the NHTSA incident underlines the need for “greater transparency when conducting crash tests,” as well as setting proper industry standards when it comes to new technologies.



 

And on that topic, other advanced-tech supporters have cued in with deeper criticism.

A recent article by a prominent online advanced-tech auto publication has said that by not announcing NHTSA’s first post crash-test fire in June, GM is "botching" its response and this is undermining consumer confidence thus essentially jeopardizing the whole EV movement.

Of this opinion, it is at least correct that many are concerned and there is PR fallout.

At GM-Volt we have twice mentioned that the June fire story did not come out for months, but other publications have raised suspicions of an alleged cover up.

Yesterday we asked Rob Peterson his views on this, and he said GM did not intend to deviously suppress the story.

“There’s no cover up. It’s really not even worthy of a response,” Peterson said, but GM has since responded anyway.

Initially, Peterson said GM thought it proper to follow up with federal authorities to investigate what was really a first-in-history incident.

Engineers and scientists at NHTSA and GM did not know what the cause of the three-week-delayed fire was, and still do not, Peterson said. As it is, they began trying to replicate it to identify if there is a safety concern.

Fact: GM broke no laws and did what it says was the responsible action at the time.

Equally true is the company no more wants to see a fire risk than anyone and has as much to lose as anyone if it did.

We will note also that if someone wants to blame GM for not reporting the story sooner, they will have to blame the government as well, because NHTSA did not issue a press release either.

Was it a conspiracy? Some may allege it, but let’s remember GM and the Volt ought to at minimum be viewed as innocent until proven guilty. And beyond this, perhaps there are strong reasons to give GM the benefit of the doubt as well.

Unfortunately, some are raising issues in the court of public opinion in which personal views all too often fall short of justice, so let’s take a look at that briefly.

It’s been obvious “the media” has used its right of free speech to the full extent here, but who are “the people” who are reading, watching or listening to these various reports?

Many of them are those who do not know much at all about advanced-tech cars.

As we reported in March, the average consumer would receive a failing grade if quizzed on very elementary aspects of hybrid, electric, and extended-range electric cars.

A statistically significant number of people interpreting the seemingly scary reports do not know a Volt from a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, or a Toyota Prius or a Nissan Leaf, for that matter.

This was shown by a poll a year ago of 1,900 in-the-market car buyers. Findings included:

About one-third answered that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) produce tailpipe emissions.

Just over one half did not know it takes more than 15 minutes to recharge BEVs.

Fully 85-percent confused all-electric BEVs with hybrid vehicles and extended-range electric vehicles like the Volt, and said BEVs are fueled by both gasoline and batteries.

Answering questions about hybrids, 77 percent said these cars are fueled by hydrogen, and 72 percent said they have zero tailpipe emissions.

The only fire needing to be put out

Now, do you want to talk about a combustible mix from a public relations standpoint: Take General Motors still trying to put behind it a legacy of bankruptcy, perceived quality issues, and therefore a measure of public distrust. Throw in a new technology – the Volt – of which the person on the street is often unaware. Then light the PR match by saying the federal government is investigating to make sure the Volt won’t roast these potential consumers alive.

Just like screaming "fire!" in a dark and crowded theater, the results have been predictable.

Another bit of proverbial kindling in this PR tinderbox is society’s all-time-high demand for safety. As we become more and more coddled with conveniences that previously kings could only dream of, we as a society become more and more risk averse.

Further, how the Toyota unintended acceleration issues were handled not long ago caught the government and Toyota some heat, and now is a parallel repeat. GM, unfortunately, is being treated like a similar offender and it is not being let off too easily.

While it is true the media has been only too happy to increase its audience by churning the overblown Volt story onwards, responsibility does not only belong to the media.

Instead, we at GM-Volt think responsibility ought to be spread all around. Put benignly, it is a symptom of our wonderful connected society today and no one party deserves to have an accusing finger pointed at it.

While there are legitimate concerns being hashed through, it’s no help that this is a litigious, fearful and insufficiently informed society we live in.

This last assertion is all the more ironic considering we have more info at our fingertips than any other time in history, isn’t it?



 

And ultimately, it’s too bad because the Volt is a viable electric car with a clean fire safety record that barely pollutes and can be driven with little or no gasoline consumption.

It is a first step toward energy independence and ultimately cessation of using petroleum as fuel, and this is part of why many have embraced it – and why some entrenched factions have politicized it – and we haven’t even touched on those perpetually biased interests.

Sadly, even without mentioning the known haters, some believe GM’s "halo" has been tarnished.

We think it is clear however that the Volt has been subjected to reactive repercussions while in fact it has not been proven guilty of anything at all.

But since the Volt is well engineered and those who do understand the car know it makes sense, we think these times too shall pass, and hopefully sooner rather than or later it will be vindicated.

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