How Can Government Impartially Investigate Chevy Volt?

The Associated Press has reported that new fires involving the Chevy Volt have prompted NHTSA to open an investigation to assess the risks for the vehicle. Two Volts that had been crash-tested by the government agency recently caught fire or “emitted smoke and sparks.” This follows an incident that occurred about 6 months ago when a Volt burst into flames three weeks after a crash-test. Considering that NHTSA delayed informing the public of that incident, will it be possible for an agency of the Executive Branch of government to now give a fair assessment of the risks of a vehicle that General Motors and the Obama Administration have hyped and gambled much credibility (as well as billions of taxpayer dollars) on?

A statement out of NHTSA gives a clue as to how biased the agency already is when it comes to electric vehicles. “NHTSA continues to believe that electric vehicles have incredible potential to save consumers money at the pump, help protect the environment, create jobs and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on oil,” the agency said. Wow, nice to know that an agency responsible for the safety of the American public has no preconceptions going into the Volt investigation (sarcasm intended.)

This is not the first time that the effectiveness and motivations of NHTSA has come into question. reports that a Department of Transportation Inspector General audit has criticized the processes of the government agency revolving around NHTSA’s Toyota unintended acceleration investigation. The article states, “The new audit concluded NHTSA needs to make improvements in its handling of auto safety investigations, but offered no substantive evaluation of the agency’s use of science in examining Toyota unintended acceleration.”  The transparency of NHTSA was also questioned with this statement, “Because NHTSA routinely fails to document meetings (with) manufacturers, OIG recommended ‘a complete and transparent record system with documented support for decisions that significantly affect its investigations.'” That is an important recommendation considering that GM is sure to be meeting with NHTSA to help plan the report for the Chevy Volt fires.

NHTSA’s notion that the Volt can “help protect the environment, create jobs and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on oil” is highly debatable. Let’s be real, with a range of about 30 miles the vehicle can save about a gallon of gas a day under optimum conditions. And according to a Bloomberg article on a Chevy Volt fire, LMC Automotive, a forecasting firm based in Oxford, England, predicts electric vehicles will make up 1 percent of the U.S. car market in 2020. How is this going to significantly reduce dependence on oil? Considering that about 40% of America’s oil consumption comes from vehicle usage, we are talking about reducing oil dependence by less than one half a percent by 2020, if predictions are accurate. And that would be for vehicles that used no gas at all, not for hybrids like the Volt where the already miniscule benefits decrease. Hypocrisy is exhibited by those that condemned new drilling for oil in America because it would take a few years to get the oil to market but now support the electrification of America’s auto fleet for such a small future benefit. Crony capitalism that enriches political friends is a more likely reason for the hypocrisy than a true belief that Chevy Volts will save America from foreign oil dependence. 

The hyperbole coming out of NHTSA regarding EV potential gives a clear sign of the bias and ideology of the government agency. No conclusive scientific data exists to weigh the consequences or benefits to the environment of the production and use of lithium ion based EVs. The tiny benefits are more than likely outweighed by the disposal and production issues that arise from the use of the lithium ion batteries. Do green ideologues who support the Chevy Volt even realize that mining must occur to obtain the main source for the batteries? How about the fact that most electricity comes from burning coal and our power grid can not absorb a great deal of strain from EV charging needs? The blind faith put into the technology exposes a gullibility or naiveté of those that support the production of cars like the Volt without question, regardless of the high costs.

President Obama has given his personal endorsement of the Chevy Volt. He has told town hall meeting attendants that complained of high gas costs that they should buy new electric/hybrids like the Volt. He also claimed to have driven one and said it was a great car. He actually rolled a few feet in one that came off an assembly line, but this fact didn’t alter his endorsement. I wonder if attending secret service agents were issued fire extinguishers to carry along with their Uzis.

I doubt that NHTSA will give a negative report on the Volt, considering their leader’s love affair with the vehicle and Government Motors’ investment in the car. Treasury’s refusal to divest taxpayers’ GM stake by gambling with a market timing strategy on its exit now presents a conflict when government agencies must investigate a company that the Obama Administration has such a vested interest in. This conflict may put the safety of Americans, who pay a great deal to subsidize the Volt, at risk.

GM originally blamed NHTSA for the first crash-tested Volt fire stating that the agency did not follow “protocol.” The problem with that defense is that the protocol didn’t exist at the time of the fire! These facts never seem to get in the way of the Chevy Volt spin. Expect statements from NHTSA and Government Motors that electric vehicles present new challenges that we must adapt to, just as we adapted to conventional fuel powered vehicles. The problem with this philosophy is that it neglects to address the costs of billions of dollars to taxpayers to promote the quest to electrify America’s fleet. Perhaps more importantly it doesn’t address the true limited benefits of vehicles like the Volt that were pushed upon the public before all safety and risks assessments were done. Sadly, at this stage, NHTSA is not the agency to now be trusted to honestly present the risks and benefits of the Chevy Volt. And regardless of the final verdict on Chevy Volt safety, the costs have far exceeded the benefits.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.