Last Friday the federal Volt battery investigation was closed even as GM and officials from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration are preparing to face a formal congressional hearing this week.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing titled, "Volt Vehicle Fire: What did NHTSA know and when did they know it?” is scheduled for Jan. 25.

It will be chaired by Darrell Issa, R-CA, and aims to investigate potential fire risks associated with extensively damaged Volts, and whether officials have – and still are – withholding vital information.



 

The first post-crash test fire happened this June after NHTSA stored a Volt without its battery being discharged, yet the public did not hear of it until November.

NHTSA administrator David Strickland said that the White House was informed in September, but Republicans have repeatedly asked GM and NHTSA why the delay?

GM has said the first-of-its-kind June fire was not something it felt was a significant safety threat, but did set about assessing and trying to repeat it. Successive attempts failed until November when stand-alone batteries were abused enough to show GM and NHTSA how sparks and flames could happen.

Alleging improprieties, Issa spokesman Ali Ahmad said on Friday that the House committee will demand NHTSA turn over all records related to the Volt’s safety.

"NHTSA has stalled on responding to the committee's inquiry for six weeks and inexplicably refused to provide any documents,” he said. “The committee expects full compliance with its request and will consider compulsory methods if NHTSA does not immediately change its position."

While these allegations are specific, observers have otherwise noted the Volt and GM have been a target by opponents to automotive electrification in general and GM in particular.

In part because the now profitable post-bankruptcy GM – recently also acknowledged as the world’s largest automaker – has not yet paid back all the money it received from the federal government as Chrysler did , it has not received much mercy from a variety of critics.

To answer the latest inquiry, GM CEO Dan Akerson will testify before the House committee as will NHTSA’s Strickland.

With perhaps fortuitous timing, on Friday NHTSA officially ended its investigation into issues the House is yet riled about and issued a press release highlighting the outcome:

Opened on November 25, the agency’s investigation has concluded that no discernible defect trend exists and that the vehicle modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts.

NHTSA remains unaware of any real-world crashes that have resulted in a battery-related fire involving the Chevy Volt or any other electric vehicle. NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles show great promise as a safe and fuel-efficient option for American drivers.

For its part, GM said NHTSA’s findings were consistent with its own testing and assessments – some of which were done alongside NHTSA investigators.

As a result of the highly publicized concerns, GM announced on Jan 5 it would offer structural enhancements – not due to any implied threat by NHTSA, but GM has said it is entirely a proactive gesture to allay concerns.



 

“The voluntary action that GM is taking is intended to make a safe vehicle even safer,” GM said. “In fact, the Volt has earned top safety ratings from key 3rd party organizations and is a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.”

The company added it is proud of the Volt’s technological innovations and said it appreciates Volt customers who stood by the car.

“Our overriding commitment will always be to provide our customers with the best ownership experience and peace of mind in the industry and we’re focused on delivering that every day,” GM said.

In recent months, GM as been vindicated in several previous attempts to smear its extended-range electric vehicle.

Its newly won ranking as world’s largest automaker and latest handling of the Volt battery fiasco will undoubtedly embolden GM to hold its head up when scrutinized by the House inquisition.

GM’s reclaiming of its formerly held #1 spot came at the close of calendar year 2011 in which it edged out Toyota and Volkswagen. GM’s global sales of 9.03 million vehicles in 2011 topped Volkswagen’s reported 8.16 million and Toyota’s estimated at 7.9 million.

As were others in the Japanese auto industry, Toyota was set back last March when that country was ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami.

But GM also has been on the rise, rolling out well regarded new economical models and saw its 2011 sales increase by 7.6 percent. Its U.S. sales led the way for Chevrolet with total vehicle deliveries of 1,775,812, up more than 13 percent.

As for the Volt itself, GM ended the year again cresting higher with 1,529 sold in December, nearly 1,000 to retail customers. It did miss its first year goal of 10,000 North American sales, with 7,671 total, but overall GM is now playing from a greater place of strength than it has in many years.

We shall see how it and NHTSA face allegations about its halo car this week.

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