Did Electric Cars Just Hit the Wall?

Could the electric-car revolution -- or at least, the lithium-ion battery revolution that is expected to power all those electric cars -- be in trouble?

Concerns about fires in the Chevy Volt, General Motors' (NYS: GM) "moonshot" plug-in hybrid car, suddenly have investors raising the question. While there's no question that any major new technology brings unanticipated complications, some are starting to worry that safety concerns around electric vehicles could make already-skeptical consumers even more dubious -- and kill the electric-car revolution before it starts.

Are those worries justified?

A smaller-- and bigger -- deal than it seems
Here are the key facts: A Chevy Volt that had been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration caught fire -- three weeks after the test. Concerned, NHTSA and GM engineers attempted to replicate the incident by deliberately rupturing a Volt battery pack, which then also caught fire, a week later.

GM held a press conference with senior executives yesterday to address the issue, but not much in the way of actual new information came to light. Product czar Mary Barra wouldn't explain exactly how the fires started, saying that GM would release full information once its engineers had "validated" the cause. But here's what else we do know:

  • It's not likely a danger to drivers. Barra did say that the fires were caused by energy left in the batteries, and pointed out that the fires happened days after the crashes -- no accidents involving Volts have yet resulted in fires. GM has developed procedures and equipment to "de-power" the batteries of wrecked Volts, which it is rolling out to first responders, repair shops, and salvage yards, the folks who are more likely to be facing a risk.
  • GM is taking this very seriously. Right now, whenever OnStar receives word of an accident involving a Volt, GM has been dispatching engineers to the vehicle to de-power the batteries and advise on safe handling of the damaged car. GM has also offered to lend any concerned Volt owner a (non-Volt) vehicle to drive until the problem is resolved. And the company has established a team of senior engineers who will work with the Feds to develop changes and procedures to ensure the safety of Volt drivers.

GM has to take this seriously. While Volt sales aren't yet a significant contributor to the General's bottom line, the car is a huge symbol of GM's comeback and a big part of its current marketing push. And the truth is, looked at in isolation, it's probably not that big a deal. GM did extensive safety testing on the Volt, but they missed this scenario -- and really, that's not super-surprising with a still-new technology.

But while most of Barra's focus in Monday's press conference was on the Volt, she did say that this isn't just a GM problem, it's an industry problem, a fact of the new-generation lithium-ion battery packs like those used in the Volt that will have to be addressed. If that's true, she's right. And it'll need to be addressed soon, lest consumers (and first responders and repair shops) start to think of electric cars and hybrids as safety risks.

But I'm not yet convinced that it is true.

Where are the Tesla fires?
The electric cars made by Tesla Motors (NAS: TSLA) use lithium-ion batteries like the Volt's, though Tesla's battery packs use a different configuration, lots of small laptop-type battery cells rather than the smaller number of big cells that GM and other automakers use. But still, there are a couple thousand Tesla Roadsters driving around out there, and nothing like the Volt fires has been reported.

Most Toyota (NYS: TM) and Honda (NYS: HMC) hybrids use nickel metal hydride batteries, an older technology, but the new Honda Civic Hybrid and the upcoming plug-in version of the Prius use new-generation lithium-ion technology like the Volt's, as does the Nissan (OTC: NSANY) Leaf. And Ford's (NYS: F) new Focus Electric will use lithium-ion batteries from LG Chem, the same supplier that makes the Volt's batteries.

All of those vehicles have undergone extensive testing (and in the case of the Teslas, many thousands of miles of actual on-road use by customers) and no after-crash fires have been reported. That doesn't mean there's no risk; it's possible that the Volt test did in fact reveal a risk that all these cars will share.

But it does at least suggest that this is a GM problem, not a lithium-ion battery problem. That would be a good thing for both GM and the industry as a whole.

If it's just a GM problem, that's good news -- even for GM
Safety defects in vehicles are costly hassles for automakers, but they crop up for every automaker sooner or later. From a PR perspective, GM is mostly doing the right thing here -- getting out in front of the problem, working closely with the Feds, making executives available to answer questions, taking care of affected customers -- and the fact that nobody has been injured so far is a very good thing. If it's a Volt-specific problem, GM will look a little clueless for a while, but it'll fix it and move forward.

A problem with lithium-ion battery packs, long touted as the technology that will enable the electric-car and advanced-hybrid revolution, would be a bigger deal. In the long run, it may turn out to be a manageable risk for those who work with wrecked vehicles, just as full tanks of gas are a manageable risk now.

But with consumers still skeptical of electric vehicles, and automakers still facing the challenge of selling them to a mass audience, any hint of an increased safety risk could be A Big Problem. EV enthusiasts and investors -- and not just GM investors -- should keep a close eye on this story as it plays out in the coming weeks.

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At the time this article was published Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. You can follow his auto-related musings on Twitter, where he goes by @jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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