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New Technology and New Products Could Mean New Fire Hazards

Engineers from General Motors and a few insurance representatives are investigating whether a Chevrolet Volt, or its charging cord or charging station, caused a fire in mid-April that destroyed a garage in England. What’s more, fire officials and auto experts were surprised when the unplugged hybrid electric car began smoldering again–four days after the blaze!

Firefighters returned to the garage after being told that smoke emerged from underneath the Volt once again. The car had not been moved since its initial fire four days before, which also destroyed a second vehicle–a 1987 Suzuki Samurai that the Volt’s owner had converted to electric power.

“The rekindle of the fire four days later really adds to the mystery,” said the local fire official.

Fortunately, the owner of the car is a volunteer firefighter. He’s had an interest in electric vehicles, and wrote on the internet how he converted the Suzuki Samurai to run on electricity. In an online electric-vehicle album, the man says his wife calls the vehicle “Sparky.”

The Volt and the Suzuki had been plugged in for recharging when the first fire broke out in the homeowner’s attached garage. “We still remain pretty confident that the blaze was not started by the Volt,” Rob Peterson, a GM spokesman, said afterwards. He also said that GM has not had any similar problems with Volts.

General Motors has sold about 1,600 Volts since the plug-in electric hybrid car was introduced in December 2010. The Volt is considered an electric hybrid because it includes a small gas-powered motor that can be used to recharge the car’s electric battery. The Volt’s lithium-ion battery pack has a range of about 40 miles.

The automaker’s engineers have inspected the Volt, and their findings indicate that the vehicle was damaged by the fire, but does not seem to be the cause. “While the Volt’s battery pack sustained damage, it was not extensive enough or of the type that would suggest that it caused the fire,” they said. “In addition, there is clear evidence based on moderate damage to the cord set and charging system that neither component caused the fire.”

Even with those findings, the lesson from this incident is clear: With new technologies emerging all the time, we do not yet know all the possible dangers, including fire hazards, that can come from the products that use them. So the only way for consumers and their families to stay safe is to take precautions ahead of time so that if an unforeseen smoke or fire situation does happen, there is nothing flammable nearby to that product that would make a bad situation worse. What’s more, there needs to be a fire extinguisher nearby and a clear escape route away from the garage or other area where this new product is being used or stored. Because right now, we do not know enough about these new technologies to say that smoke or fire resulting in third-degree burns or smoke inhalation injury is not possible.