The Truth About Electric Car Safety

If you’ve been holding off on buying that nifty electric car because you’re worried about its safety, think again.

| GUIDE TO GREEN CARS, Summer 2012

Crash Test Chevy Volt

Worried that an electric car might explode after a collision? In fact, after extensive crash testing like the side-impact test pictured here, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf were awarded five stars and high safety ratings for rollover protection and front, rear and side collisions.


In November 2011, the extended-range electric Chevrolet Volt was beginning a modest sales climb when it was temporarily derailed by a report from Washington, D.C. A Volt had caught fire after a government crash test, which led to an official safety agency investigation. The fire occurred three weeks after the crash test, which damaged the battery, and could easily have been avoided if appropriate post-collision safety precautions had been followed.

According to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an electric car’s battery could potentially catch on fire if it heats to the point that it ignites flammable liquids near the battery. Draining fluids and removing gas tanks is common at junkyards and garages following real-life car accidents, but is not necessary in the case of gasoline-powered test crashes, because the testers use expensive, non-flammable Stoddard fuel, which poses no fire risk.

General Motors had actually developed procedures for draining and discarding the Volt’s battery pack following a crash, but according to company spokesman Greg Martin, GM hadn’t communicated them to the testing agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), at the time of the test. The Chevy Volt fire received a great deal of publicity, and raised a key question for potential buyers of electric cars: Are electric cars safe?

The public was suddenly unsure, especially after the Volt fire was hit by politically motivated attacks. “Move over, Solyndra,” wrote Greenwire, an environmental news service. “Conservatives opposed to the Obama administration’s spending on clean energy have a new whipping boy. The electric Chevrolet Volt is the new focus of angry conservative blog posts, testy congressional hearings and joking videos.” In December, Mitt Romney said the Volt is “an idea whose time has not come,” and the car was derided by some commentators as “Obama’s car.” The inconvenient truth here is that the Volt was launched in 2007 with George W. Bush in the White House, and the $7,500 federal tax credit that helps people buy it was also passed on Bush’s watch, in 2008. Even the first stages of the GM and Chrysler bailouts happened before Obama took office.

The facts surrounding the Volt fire are complex, and at least partly because of the sensationalist coverage, some people were left with the impression that the Volt has a record of exploding on impact, when in fact this has never occurred.

Volt sales took a hit, dropping to 603 in January from 1,529 in its peak month (December 2011) as of our press time. A survey of 3,800 Americans in December 2011 found a drop in interested “early adopters.” The percentage of respondents “very likely” to consider a Volt fell from 21.3 to 11.6 percent, and those “likely” to consider one dropped from 38.1 to 24.7 percent.

4/1/2014 6:52:24 AM

Due to increase in the environment pollution level, everybody now conscious about how to protect the environment. So, that they started using of electric cars instead of fuel cars. By using of electric cars the environment must be pollution free and the natural sources of energy can be saved for the future period of time. if the owner will once charge the car then it will run several times. To keep the performance level of the car regular repair and maintenance is necessary.

2/7/2014 2:24:13 AM

At the time of driving a car always know details of the car like the operation and the general maintenance of the car. Sometimes people face the problems due to many type of causes and it creates a measure issue for them. In the electric car safety is the most important thing, sometimes fire catch in the car due to the short circuit or any other problem so how to avoid these things is very important.

daniel lo
1/29/2014 4:03:40 AM

Every vehicle has some advantage and disadvantage. Car are dangerous machine. You can have car problem anytime anywhere it does not have any specific period of time. are sustainable. Every vehicle has pros and cons. Some manufacturers are actively offering some electrical vehicles, others are selling hybrid cars, and a lot of talk goes around about hydrogen cars, fuel cells. Increasing prices for fossil fuels, many people are given serious thought to the idea of replacing their present, expensive to operate conventional car by a modern electrical, hybrid or hydrogen-powered “ecological” car. The companies making them are aggressively promoting their products, promising much reduced operational costs, almost complete environmental friendliness.

paul grover
12/9/2012 6:33:17 AM

I am in agreement with alot of the posters here in that this seems to be more of a radical leftist article than some real info about the new electric vehicles. "Bush did this", and "you're a greedy oil using war monger". Wel I have a couple of issues with the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, etc.. Sure I wouldlike a $7500 tax credit, but I have already paid for it through my taxes, so getting a little back would be nice for a change. But who he hell can afford $52,000 for a freekin' commuter car nowadays?! (Chevy Volt ASP) How long does it take to recoup my investment so that I am saving money over a regular car? (short answer.... a loooooong time). And I am not really a fan of saying a car is safe by giving it a 5 star crash rating... Ever heard of the "Smart Car"? There is no way I want to be hit by any car bigger than me (I think ALL cars are bigger than a Smart), and the Smart car has a 5 star impact rating... Things that make you go "Hmmmmm". By the way... I would love to own, or build an electric vehicle. But I don't like anyones else who uses their "agenda" to slap it in my face. Especially when it is not based on facts. (anyone else notice the 'inconvienent truth' quote in the article to try and motivate the global warming fanatics?) I really do know my actual carbon footprint... do you?

john rockhold
7/31/2012 8:13:05 PM

Tom: check out the article below for more on the point you've raised.

robert perry
4/19/2012 4:11:32 PM

For more information about the carbon footprint of electrical cars, may I suggest that one goggle: How Green Are Electric Cars? Depends on Where You Plug In. This article appeared in many publications, including The New York Times. As one should be aware that most articles appearing in the popular press are suspect, it does offer a perspective. (I have found that even peer reviewed journal articles are also suspect.) This article also points out that electric cars are not all that green, and they often have a greater carbon footprint than gasoline engines. With warm regards, RT Perry

tom saxton
4/18/2012 5:47:02 AM

Just like electricity comes from somewhere, gasoline doesn't just magically appear at your local gas station. People like to point out that we need to consider the upstream costs of electricity, but gasoline has the same issue. Refining a gallon of gas requires about 6.5 kWh of energy, which is about the same amount of energy that an electric vehicle uses to drive 20 miles, about how far the average car in the US drives by burning that gallon of gas.

tom saxton
4/18/2012 5:39:55 AM

When thinking about the possibility of being in a car accident, I'm much more comfortable having a battery pack that turns into a bunch of little batteries in an accident than a gas tank that turns into a fireball. How can anyone park 20 gallons of flammable/explosive gas in their garage next to their furnace or water heater pilot light and worry about a battery pack? We've driven our Leaf 3,168 miles on about $98 worth of electricity, local energy supporting local jobs instead of foreign government that sponsor terrorism.

abbey bend
4/17/2012 5:37:35 PM

Robert, you hit is directly on the head!!! As the actual number prove out, over and over again!

abbey bend
4/17/2012 5:35:53 PM

There has never been a single example of tax credits doing anything except lead us, as a country, down a blind path! Look at ethanol, solar and windpower, to see how benificial it has been! Every study shows it not only has not helped, it has spent large sums of money with little to nothing to show for it. But then everything is Bush's fault isn't it?? You want a brighter future, get rid of Obama!

abbey bend
4/17/2012 5:30:31 PM

So you just post the same thing over and over again? Now that is original!!!

abbey bend
4/17/2012 5:29:18 PM

Not much of a farm is this is your primary farm vehicle. You cannot get a bale of hay into it, and they will not tow a trailer! I suspect much more talk, than actual action here!

abbey bend
4/17/2012 5:27:36 PM

Good luck on the battery upgrade! And as for life of the battery, really good luck. Even Nissan is not postulating battery life near that good! You do know they do not make a replacement battery for that car don't you? Also, you want to talk about being supported by others!! What do you think is used to make the electricity???? Who is giving you a huge tax credit??? But it is all free in your mind, isn't it???

abbey bend
4/17/2012 5:22:28 PM

The couple of Leafs I have followed were not very fast, could not go very far and zippy is just a term used by people with no understanding about how much they are holding up traffic most of the time.

abbey bend
4/17/2012 5:21:05 PM

So you have a windmill outside of your garage you are using for power?! Get a clue, your car runs on coal, nuclear, hydro or natural gas!

abbey bend
4/17/2012 5:19:09 PM

Divaqs, Obviously you have no understanding about an electric engine. Of course they produce waste heat and noise, it may not be as much as an internal combustion engine, but they still do! As for efficiency of an electric motor versus and internal combustion engine, there are great number of losses involved with an electric motor, before the energy even gets to the batteries of the automobile, which for some reason are all forgotten about when talking about an electric motored automobile. When all of the numbers are put into play, battery powered vehicles never do as well in total pollution/efficiency as a well designed internal combustion engine does. You need to have some actual knowledge and understanding of "simple physics"!

4/15/2012 5:23:23 PM

Robert, your information is really off. Have you ever considered how un-green the production of gasoline is? Drilling and pumping for oil releases greenhouse gases, refining the oil consumes a huge amount of energy, and defending the oil takes not only energy but blood. Also, the efficiency of a electric engine is considerably higher than a gas engine... as can be compared in simple physic, in that electric engines don't produce waste heat or noise.

robert perry
4/15/2012 4:10:23 AM

I do have a comment concerning electrical cars. Articles seem to never point out that the electricity needed to charge the batteries has to be generated somewhere. The efficiency of the electrical power plants is about 30 percent, and there are line loses. This suggests that electrical cars have a greater carbon footprint and, overall, are less efficient than gasoline powered engines. I think one does a disservice to the public by not noting this in the literature. Electric cars are not all that green. With warm regards, R.T. Perry

cindy bova
4/14/2012 5:10:39 PM

Our Leaf was purchased 8 months ago and we Love it! Best car we ever purchased! Getting off foriegn oil and switching to renewables is a good thing! Here's a thought for all the negative responses/comments; HOW MUCH AMERICAN BLOOD ARE YOU WILLING TO TRADE FOR FORIEGN OIL? and/or HOW MANY MORE BP-OIL SPILLS WILL CHANGE YOUR MIND? Think about it......

cindy bova
4/14/2012 5:00:19 PM

Our Leaf was purchased 8 months ago and we Love it! Best car we ever purchased! Getting off foriegn oil and switching to renewables is a good thing! Here's a thought for all the negative responses/comments; HOW MUCH AMERICAN BLOOD ARE YOU WILLING TO TRADE FOR FORIEGN OIL? and/or HOW MANY MORE BP-OIL SPILLS WILL CHANGE YOUR MIND? Think about it......

matt griscom
4/14/2012 1:59:50 PM

My Nissan Leaf seems ultra-modern now and is usually the zippiest car on the road, but in 10 years I expect that there will be some changes to public perception: gas-powered cars will still be less expensive to buy, but will be generally seen as noisy, dirty, slow, complicated, and prone to breaking down. Think about that the next time the USA is dropping bombs overseas. This is how I see it now, but I already know because I drive one.

matt griscom
4/14/2012 1:47:47 PM

I own and drive a Nissan Leaf, and it has almost 12,000 miles on it. I LOVE my electric car! It's fast, simple, quiet, very easy and fun to drive. Maintenance is trivial, because it's so simple. I've never been stranded and never gone out of my way to charge my car. It saves me time and money in cost of ownership. This is a very important part of the future of transportation! I wish this transition of transportation away from gas transportation didn't require a government subsidy, but it does because gasoline is hugely subsidized by taxpayers to keep the cost down at the pump. Think $2,000,000,000,000 for Bush's Iraq war, think of the >100,000 people who died there, and realize that this is just one example of the many taxpayer subsidies and murderous foreign policy issues around keeping the oil flowing to the USA. Gas is extremely dirty and expensive long before it gets to the pump. The Bush $7500 tax credit for electric car is a smart thing for the USA, because it's needed to get the country moving towards a brighter, better future.

4/14/2012 6:30:55 AM

After more than 11 months of ownership and over 17000 miles driven in my Nissan LEAF, I am still VERY pleased with my choice. Not only have my electric bills increased only about $35/month to fuel my car (from primarily hydro-electric power), but I have NOT had to worry about oil changes, belts wearing out, filters, etc. The car is fun to drive and has served as our primary family vehicle. It is the car all the drivers in my family want to drive.

4/14/2012 6:25:51 AM

As experiences is demonstrating to me, I am saving at least $2000/year by not having to pay for expensive gas, oil changes, radiator flushes, engine cleanings, belt replacements, spark plugs, etc. By my calculations, I am spending only about 2 cents per mile for electricity, rather than the 20+ cents per mile I am spending in gas for our other cars. At this rate, I estimate that I will have saved more money than I spent for my LEAF after about 10-11 years... with the car essentially paying for itself, though that wasn't my object or goal, since I was already in the market for a new car. If I would have bought a gas car, there would have been no such savings, just depreciation. 10 years down the road, rather than having to get a transmission or dirty gas engine being rebuilt, I will be due for a battery upgrade... since at that time my old battery is estimated to be capable of about 80% of peak capacity. After 15000 miles driven, there was still no sign of degradation in capacity when I had it checked. Electric engines are expected to last considerably longer than gas engines, so with a battery upgrade I am expecting that my LEAF will be in use longer than any gas car would have, which means even more savings, perhaps a whole another car's value of savings.

abbey bend
4/14/2012 12:45:22 AM

Almost forgot, my car does not get that great of mileage per gallon, yet because of how much I drive a year, it would still take me 40 years to spend the same amount as either of these cars cost. With my vehicle I can haul myself, dogs, friends and wife all the the same time, or a lot of stuff and wife and dogs at the same time. Neither of these are even close to being able to do the same thing!!!!

abbey bend
4/14/2012 12:42:07 AM

Was this piece written by a White House staffer??? Both of these cars are stupid to buy for one simple reason, no resale value! Both are sold with an estimated battery life of around 7 years, then guess what, no replacement battery available! The reason is simple, cost of battery is more than the value of car. So how are these crappy little cars Green? My over 200,000+ mile car is still running well, 17 years after it left the factory, and likely will run well for another 10 years, based on lasting 300,000 miles and how much I drive it a year. Parts are cheap and easy to get, will be lots of good recyclables in it when it dies too, unlike these things! Also, only one is an electric car, having a gasoline engine in the front, fuel tank in the back, does not sound like an electric car to me, sounds more like a kind of lame, extremely expensive Prius! At $250,000 dollars apiece, when all the subsidies are added in, it is a truly stupid car to be palming off on the taxpayers! Put the Volt on the scrap piles now, where it belongs!!

julie casey
4/13/2012 6:03:24 PM

Yes, it seems that Mother Earth News has lost touch with its independent-minded readers. We enjoy the articles about independent living, but quit trying to shove your false political agenda down our throats!

shawn henry
4/13/2012 5:03:15 PM


shawn henry
4/13/2012 5:02:30 PM

There is no doubt Mother Earth Mag is Left wing Global Warming crazy. These cars cost more to buy and own than a small compact car that runs on gas or diesl. You only get what 25 miles to a charge on the Volt, Then you got to have a charging station installed. I bought a Smart car and now i'm spending more money a year to keep it on the road with the $400 oil changes and break downs. Buying the F250 truck i wanted would been cheeper. This Government wants to push these products on us because they got pockets involved.

joe hafner
4/13/2012 1:03:08 PM

Yeah uh huh, too bad the white house is basically paying people to buy them through subsidies. There were more pickup trucks sold in my county even with the high gas prices than there were volts sold nationwide. MEN is such a political shill nowadays it isnt even funny.

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