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GM’s Chevy Volt Used as ‘Political Punching Bag,’ Akerson Says

Chevy Volt
The Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle at the LA Auto Show. Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

The General Motors Co. Chevrolet Volt, the first mass-market electric vehicle sold by a U.S. automaker, has become a “political punching bag,” GM Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson said.

Akerson, testifying before a U.S. House panel today, said the Volt, which the company is fixing after fires following crash tests, is engineered for safety.

“Unfortunately, there is one thing we did not engineer,” Akerson told a House subcommittee led by Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican. “Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features, we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag. And that, sadly, is what the Volt has become.”

Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in a report released today before the hearing, said an “unnatural relationship” between President Barack Obama’s administration and automakers that received U.S. bailouts may explain the delay last year in disclosing a potential safety defect in Volts. The government owns 32 percent of GM’s shares.

Obama has set a goal of having 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015. The Volt, a plug-in hybrid, and the Nissan Leaf, a fully electric model, were the only two mass-produced electric vehicles in the U.S. market last year.

“This unnatural relationship has blurred the lines between the public and private sector as President Obama touts the survival of General Motors as one of the top accomplishments of his administration,” according to the report by the committee led by Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican. “On a policy level, this relationship raises serious questions about whether or not the administration is too heavily invested in the success of GM to be an effective regulator.”

No Safety Risk

U.S. auto-safety regulators and GM didn’t put driver safety at risk by not immediately disclosing a fire that erupted in a Volt three weeks after a May crash test, Akerson and National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland said at the hearing in Washington.

GM and NHTSA didn’t disclose the fire until Bloomberg News reported it in November. The agency opened a formal investigation later that month and closed it last week, saying electric cars posed no more of a fire risk than gasoline-powered models, after GM announced a fix for current and future Volts, avoiding a formal recall.

GM, based in Detroit, and NHTSA found that battery coolant can leak and catch fire in a simulated rollover crash that punctures the battery compartment.

Delay Defended

Strickland and Akerson defended the five-month delay in disclosing a possible defect, saying it took time to determine the cause and what risk it might pose to Volt drivers.

“Not only would I drive it, I would drive my mother, my wife and my baby sister with me along in the ride,” Strickland said today when asked by Representative Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, whether the Volt is safe.

Strickland in his testimony said his agency took the “uncommon step” of opening the Volt investigation without any fires reported outside crash tests to “ensure the safety of the driving public with the emerging electric vehicle technology.”

Had there been “an imminent safety risk,” the agency “would have ensured the public knew about that risk immediately,” he told the panel.

The fire three weeks after the crash test didn’t endanger drivers, Akerson said.

“As one of our customers put it: if they couldn’t cut him out of the vehicle in two or three weeks, he had bigger problems to worry about,” he said.

Akerson’s New Addition

Akerson told the panel he just purchased one of the Volts that GM bought back after offering owners that option when news emerged about the fires. Akerson didn’t get the $7,500 U.S. tax credit offered to buyers of electric vehicles because the car was used.

Issa, who has criticized the Obama administration’s electric-vehicle goals and the U.S. bailouts of GM and Chrysler Group LLC, told reporters during a break in the hearing that he will continue his investigation into the timing of when the Volt probe was made public.

GM defended the Volt today in a full-page ad in media including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal with an open letter from Akerson calling the car a “technological moon shot” and safe.

“Yes, the world is learning from Detroit again,” he wrote. “And we couldn’t be prouder.”

Disproportionate Scrutiny

The hearing follows Obama’s annual State of the Union speech last night, which came as candidates prepare for the U.S. presidential election in November.

Obama, in the speech, took credit for taking the U.S. auto industry from the “verge of collapse.”

“Today, General Motors is back on top as the world’s No. 1 automaker,” Obama said to applause.

GM yesterday said the administration isn’t involved in its business, and Strickland today said GM didn’t ask it to delay publicizing the Volt fire and its subsequent testing to determine what caused it.

The Volt has become “a surrogate for some to offer broader commentary” on GM and on Obama’s administration, Akerson said.

GM began selling the Volt, which Akerson called “a technical showcase for GM,” after a 2009 U.S. government bailout. It was introduced as a concept car at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Kucinich said he met with Akerson yesterday. He said at the hearing that he hopes the attention to the Volt doesn’t derail the promise of electric cars.

“It would be very bad for our economy to do anything that would demolish the potential for electric vehicles,” said Kucinich, the top Democrat on the subcommittee.

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