Economy & Budget

The Chevy Volt Catches Fire

The latest news of the unhappy fusion between Big Government and Big Business comes to us from AutoGuide:

Following on from the announcement that GM is looking at redesigning the Chevrolet Volt’s lithium-ion battery system in the wake of several highly publicized fires resulting from test crashes, comes further news that both the automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration delayed disclosure of their original findings by months.

Apparently, way back in June, General Motors heard about a Volt fire that happened three weeks after said vehicle was crash tested, yet it wasn’t until November that the company, nor NHTSA disclosed there was a potential problem, urging both dealers and customers to drain the battery pack immediately following an accident.

As a result the public relations nightmare surrounding Chevy’s halo vehicle appears to be deepening, though a good deal of the blame in this case also rests with NHTSA.

Joan Claybrook, a former adminstrator at NHTSA believes part of the reason for the delay was the “fragility of Volt sales.” Yet she also believes that “NHTSA could have put out a consumer alert, not to tell them [customers] for six months makes no sense to me.”

(Emphases mine.)  As a longtime student of the Volt debacle, I must admit I didn’t think they’d actually start catching fire.  Along with the government suppression of safety data, it’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t have dared to write into a satire, for fear of going over the top.

An interesting point on the subject been raised by Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center of Auto Safety in Washington D.C. He said that he is “surprised that NHTSA didn’t drain the battery after crash testing as it is standard procedure to empty the fuel tank on conventional gasoline powered vehicles.” He also says that the NHTSA incident underlines the need for “greater transparency when conducting crash tests,” as well as setting proper industry standards when it comes to new technologies.

It seems like the more talk we hear of “transparency” in Washington, the less we actually get.  Soon we will be rendered completely blind by a billowing cloud of transparency promises.

GM has been providing loaner vehicles to Volt owners concerned about getting turned into eco-friendly charcoal briquettes, and has dished out 5,000 of them so far, which must represent a very healthy slice of the tiny Volt user base.  The cost of five thousand loaner cars isn’t going to do much for the already abysmal financial status of the Volt project, which gobbled up hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies before the first low-emission fiery deathtrap rolled off the line, to say nothing of the incentives offered to buyers.

This is just one high-profile example of the way government involvement with business corrupts the consumer data stream.  Very few Volt buyers had the foggiest notion of what the vehicle actually cost, and now we’ve learned that important information about its performance was kept from them.  Both green and corporatist ideology provided powerful incentives for the perpetuation of illusions.

Why would anyone expect fair and honest performance from the government “referees” when they’re also players in the game?  The further we move from a rigid separation of political and economic interests, in which a tiny government meticulously enforces a limited body of clearly described laws, the less impartial those “referees” become.  Politicians who rail against “bailouts” and “lobbyists” are curiously silent about General Motors and its refusal to repay the American taxpayer, even though it sits on sizable cash reserves.  And now the same people who presume that all CEOs are basically crooks and cheats, until proven otherwise, turn out to be very… flexible when it comes to enforcing the rules on a product and corporation whose success is of keen interest to the Administration and its labor union allies.

None of this is terribly surprising… to those who have shed their romantic illusions about honest and transparent Big Government.  There is no such animal.

Update: AutoGuide has corrected its article to say that, instead of 5,000 people signing up for the Volt loaner car program, “33 of roughly 5,000 owners have requested loaner vehicles from General Motors.”

In the “bad news” category for the Volt, however, GM is offering a buyback program for concerned owners.  Thus far, according to a statement relayed by CNN, “a couple dozen” owners have “inquired about turning in their cars.”  Interesting that they would have the precise number for loaner vehicle requests, but not buyback inquiries.

Time will tell how much the flaming-Volt story impacts future sales of the vehicle, which you may recall were supposed to absolutley skyrocket in coming years, justifying the immense subsidies poured into the project.  We’ll have to factor in loaner car costs and buybacks to get a revised “true price” of the Volt after year’s end.


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