GM Lithium Battery Explosion Warrants Unbiased Investigation

General Motors has been quick to allay concerns that the Chevy Volt had anything to do with an explosion at a testing facility that appears to have injured five workers, one possibly seriously. The explosion has been attributed to gases from a lithium-based prototype battery being developed at GM’s tech center. While the incident should not serve as an indictment against the Volt, concerns about volatile lithium-ion batteries are legitimate.

Initial reports on the accident vary as to the severity of the injuries to workers with some sources describing “life threatening” injuries to one woman and others stating that none of the injuries are serious. The primary concern at this stage should be for the recovery of any injured persons. Subsequent investigations and reports should not be tainted by political motivations from either side of the spectrum. Considering that the Chevy Volt has been a lightning rod for critics and proponents alike, it is likely that attention from the mishap, which has been classified as an industrial accident, will be politically charged.

Plug-in, lithium-ion battery powered cars may have a major role to play in America’s attempt to develop alternate powered vehicles. Industrial accidents are both unfortunate and inevitable and GM is doing what is expected by developing and testing the new technologies. However, it is arrogant to assume that most of us will be driving electric vehicles 30 years from now while ignoring viable options. It is also reasonable to question whether or not the science, in its present stage, should be forced upon the driving public at the taxpayers’ expense.

The shortcomings and dangers of any new technology should be adequately addressed without political diversions. The responsibility to explore both the costs and benefits increases dramatically when the technology is subsidized by the American taxpayer to the tune of billions of dollars. And the GM battery explosion now exemplifies that the safety of both workers and motorists should be center stage.

One of the first stories to hit on the internet regarding the explosion proclaimed that the accident has already become an “election year story.” Strange, considering that the many reports I read were clear on the fact that the Volt was not involved and I didn’t see any pieces blaming the Volt for the accident. TV networks also seem to be ignoring the story, perhaps due to fear of angering a major paid endorser in GM. It is a shame that such an important topic can not be debated and made public without monetary and political influences.

The facts remain that wealthy purchasers of EVs are slated to receive billions of dollars in tax subsidies. Is this really the best way for America to try and obtain energy independence? Given the high price of gas a year and a half after the greatly hyped rollout of the Chevy Volt, we should be examining exactly what the taxpayer funding is contributing to. We should be analyzing specifics regarding how many EVs are expected to be on the roads five years from now and what the true impact on oil dependence would be, as well as what the ultimate cost to taxpayers is. The recent battery explosion at GM now, again, rightly raises the safety questions for the technology.

I have criticized proponents for being naïve in thinking that vehicles like the Volt are doing much to help the environment or oil independence. Perhaps it is my turn to be naïve in believing that TV news networks, journalists and politicians can possibly give an unbiased depiction of the pros and cons of spending billions in tax subsidies to promote a technology that has such a huge political and monetary foundation.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.

Update: A GM representative has confirmed that no injuries are “life-threatening.” A prototype battery for an undisclosed future vehicle was charged to 150% of capacity (not a “real world” scenario) and an external ignition source ignited gases emitted. No supplier for the battery was named but sources indicate it was A123, future supplier of the Chevy Spark battery.