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The Chevrolet Volt One Year Later – Progress, Growing Pains, and the Future of EV’s

If you are a Volt owner today you’ve no doubt heard the news (or non-news) of the Volt battery fires that have been produced in an NHTSA side impact test.  As I am coming up on my first whole year of Chevy Volt ownership, I’d like to offer my opinions that I know many other Volt owners share, but also point out some observations that perhaps get swept aside or easily forgotten.

First let me address the elephant in the room, the Chevy Volt battery fires.  The long and short of what happened was that in a side-impact roll over test by the NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration), the Chevy Volt’s battery pack was materially damaged and coolant and battery material were mixed together.  This did not immediately cause a runaway chemical reaction that caused a fire, but after a week or so – the energized battery pack eventually caused a chemical reaction that created enough heat to cause a fire.  This caused a crashed tested Volt to catch fire in one of the storage yards.

To me, this isn’t a customer safety issue – but it is an issue to be addressed with any new technology.  It’s easy to say it’s a complete non-issue because you as a driver are not threatened by a compromised battery pack immediately after a crash, but to be fair – having an unexpected fire in a body shop or any other location is a serious issue, and one that society will have to learn to deal with.  Whether this means educating shop owners or first responders to de-energize the battery pack or in some other way render the pack safe after a major accident (like draining the gas tank in cars today) it is part of learning to live with new technology – and unfortunately not something you can exactly teach the world in a month or even a few years.  It takes time.

So one unconventional observation that I’ve made in the whole process of owning a new cutting edge piece of technology like the Volt is the foresight that GM and other automakers have had in “limiting” production in the first year.  Many asked “Why only 10,000 the first year?”  While certainly there are marketing, sales, production, supply chain, and other issues that factor into this production decision there’s one key thing that people are forgetting – and that is managing risk.

Consider the full force response that GM has put out to get in front of the Volt battery fire issue.  This involved a loaner program, buyback program, and a Fedex Overnighted message from Mark Ruess to all Volt owners explaining the situation and standing by the product.  Doing these things is not so easy when you have 100,000 or 1,000,000 customers.  Think the Toyota unintended Acceleration scandal (or media frenzy non-issue) I’m sure that part of the consideration into getting in front of that issue was the cost of dealing with millions of customers is just not the same as managing the expectation of several thousand owners.

So here’s to a little bit of unsung foresight in keeping production volumes reasonable and making sure you get it right for your customers.  And to all the other Volt owners, keep in mind that you are still pioneering a very new piece of technology.  Pushing the envelope on new technology never has and never will be easy, you can see that other automakers are waiting for these issues to settle before they enter the market, which could be still be a good strategy on their part.

Change doesn’t come quickly, but it has to start somewhere and being a Volt Owner means being part of driving that change.  So from one Volt driver to another, please – continue to “drive” that change and bit by bit we’ll see that change come.

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