Just as more brands of hybrid and electric vehicles are gaining real momentum in the U.S., questions raised by the Chevy Volt’s ignitable batter pack pose serious challenges to General Motors and perhaps the entire auto sector.

What to make of it?

This is one of the Chevy Volt crash tests in mid-2011. CREDIT: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

After several test crashes damaged the Volt’s battery pack, coolant leaked in each case. Because the battery was not discharged, a fire ignited.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) discovered the fire danger this past summer when three of its test-crashed Volts caught fire after the test; in one case three weeks after. (Batteries should be discharged after a collision.)

So let’s be real here. Both NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety say they have no plans to change their safety ratings for the Volt. Both organizations gave the vehicle top marks for safety after initial crash testing.

Much of the media coverage this month has been over why NHTSA waited a few months to share news of its test crash results. And therein lies a complicating political dimension of the crash test probe, at least for GM.

GM insists the Volt is safe to drive and poses no immediate risk of fire after an accident. That said, the automaker certainly has a PR and a political problem that is costing the company — perhaps all makers of pure electric vehicles and hybrids — time and money. The longer it takes to fix, and then credibly communicate the fix, the steeper the uphill climb will be to regain consumer confidence.

UPDATE JANUARY 5, 2012:  GM reportedly said it would upgrade the steel structure and liquid cooling system that surround the battery. Read about it here.

The Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives intends to hold a hearing in late January to determine whether NHTSA and GM kept quiet about the fire to protect the image of the Volt and other electric cars, which the Obama administration has supported.

Dave Hurst, an electric vehicle analyst at Pike Research in Detroit, predicted in August that GM would miss its 2011 U.S. sales target long before the crash tests were unveiled. He said this incident could make matters worse.

Until and unless a fix is found, “it will get worse with each passing month,” Hurst said.  “I don’t know that we’ll have a definitive solution by the end of January. This is complicated enough chemistry that they will likely come up with some solutions but may not have the definitive answer members of Congress will be looking for.” And consumers deserve.

Even if the problem IS fixed by late January, informed shoppers understandably are bound to wonder how bad the problem is, partly because GM has offered to buy back all of the approximately 6,100 Volts on the road. Priced originally at about $40,000, that would be a huge pill to swallow to try to restore consumer confidence. It just might backfire.

The lithium-ion battery in the Chevy Volt -- highlighted here -- runs down the bottom center of the vehicle. CREDIT: Forbes.com

Go here for some additional perspective from Technology Review, on what kind of problem, at this stage, the battery design appears to be. In short, author Christopher Mims asserts “The issue of vehicle fires in electric cars is not just much ado about nothing, but a complete inversion of the logic all new car buyers should adopt when considering the safety of electric vehicles.”

As of December 9, GM reportedly was moving to spend about $1,000 to retrofit each Volt, according to Reuters. The proposed fixes, which would cost a total of $9 million, would likely include reinforcements around the battery pack, lamination of electric circuitry and better protection for the coolant system to stop leaks.

GM builds its own battery packs at their Brownstown, MI plant. The liquid-cooled 16-kilowatt-hour (kWh) lithium units have been part of the Volt’s design from the beginning. The individual cells in the battery are provided by LG Chem Ltd. of South Korea.

The fact that the three most outspoken critics of how NHTSA handled the crash test results happen to be harsh critics of GM suggests an ulterior motive: Republican Reps. Darrell Issa of California, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania all opposed the government-funded bailout of GM.

Perhaps the fix lies with Nissan’s different configuration surrounding the same lithium-ion battery in the Leaf. It includes a steel case around the battery and does not use liquid coolant. (Caution to shoppers of Ford’s Focus hybrid: it too uses liquid coolant in its battery pack configuration.)

Added Hurst of Pike Research: “If they don’t have a definitive-enough solution or a definitive-enough answer for politicians, this is all going to get raised again, whether there is a real safety concern or not. That is a much bigger danger (for GM). The longer this lingers, the longer we have some of these hearings and hear about it in the media, I think that poses a real problem for GM.”

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