The Chevy Volt catching on fire recently has gotten a lot of attention and has many people raising the issue of how dangerous electric cars might be. The car in question was being used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in some routine crash tests that every new vehicle is subjected to. In the crash test, the vehicle's battery was damaged and three weeks later, the car burst into flames in a NHTSA storage facility.
I'm not a fan of the Volt and tend to agree with Johan de Nysschen, the president of Audi, when he called it "a car for idiots." However, my assessment of the Volt has nothing to do with how safe it is. Let me repeat, the car was involved in a crash and three weeks later it caught on fire.
Some perspective: The Chevy Volt has a 16 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery (to be specific, since there are a lot of flavors of lithium-ion out there, it has a lithium manganese oxide/graphite battery manufactured by LG Chem of South Korea). For you techie types, that is 57 million joules of stored energy...a big battery by any measure, but it has to be; it takes a lot of energy to move 3700 pounds of metal and plastic around. However, ponder this...my truck has a 23 gallon gas tank. When full, that is 3 billion joules of stored energy; more than fifty times what was sitting in the Volt's battery. Twenty-three gallons of gasoline, properly dispersed and ignited, would flatten several city blocks...and yet none of us thinks twice about getting in these mobile explosive devices we call cars and driving around at high speeds with other mobile explosive devices driven by individuals whose driving skills are almost always vastly inferior to our own.
Let's get a grip here. While we still don't know the root cause of the recent Volt fire, at the end of the day, my bet is on the problem being a lack of understanding of how to deal with a damaged battery. Remember it took three weeks for this fire to start. If the battery had been fully discharged prior to putting the car in storage, chances are we would never have heard this story.
Speaking as someone who has seen his share of battery fires, the most likely cause of death for any electric car owner is: boredom.