May 19, 2024

Republicans Charge Delay in Disclosing a Chevy Volt Fire

At a hearing of a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, members released a staff report that argued that the administration’s bailout of General Motors created business and political reasons for the government to sacrifice public safety.

The chairman of the regulatory affairs subcommittee, Jim Jordan of Ohio, also criticized Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, for saying in December that the car was safe.

“You wait six months before you start an investigation, and two weeks after you start an investigation the secretary says it’s fine, and you think that’s normal?” he asked David L. Strickland, the administrator of the safety agency.

Mr. Strickland said it took time to determine that the Volt’s battery was responsible for the fire, which occurred three weeks after a side-impact crash test in May and happened when no one was around to see it. And it took weeks to reproduce the event, he said. If his agency had to disclose every allegation of safety problems, it would make 40,000 such disclosures a year, he said.

“It is irresponsible, and frankly illegal, for us to tell the public there is something wrong with the car if we don’t know what it is,” Mr. Strickland said. “I don’t disclose to the public anything we find that we don’t have proof is a risk to safety.”

The agency said last week that there was no discernible safety trend, and the inquiry was closed.

The chairman and chief executive of General Motors, Daniel F. Akerson, told the hearing that the Volt had not been designed “to be a political punching bag, and, sadly, that is what it has become.” G.M. has begun a print and television campaign to emphasize the vehicle’s safety.

Darrell Issa, Republican of California and chairman of the full committee, has been among the most aggressive critics of President Obama on questions of policy.

On Wednesday, Mr. Issa berated Mr. Strickland for saying his agency was still developing protocols for dealing with battery-powered vehicles. Mr. Issa showed a photo of President Obama smiling through the driver’s side window of a Volt parked at an event to introduce the car.

“How dare you tell us you’re still developing protocols while the president is sitting in an electric car?” he asked. “You’re behind the power curve.”

But Mr. Akerson, in his testimony, questioned whether the June fire represented a highway hazard. He said the fire could be reproduced only by impaling a battery with a steel rod, and even then the fire did not occur immediately; it took three weeks the first time and one week the second time.

The questioning showed a marked split, by party, over the wisdom of electric vehicles and government help in promoting them. Dennis J. Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who is the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, accused Republicans of trying to sabotage the car.

A 16-page report by the Republican staff maintained that, “like the case of Solyndra, the president has closely tied his reputation to the success of the Volt.” Solyndra was a manufacturer of solar energy arrays that went bankrupt after receiving a federal loan guarantee of more than $500 million.

The report points out that the government has given Compact Power Inc., a manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries for the Volt, $151.4 million; it has also given General Motors $105.9 million to build factories to make electric drive systems; and it has given Delphi Automotive Systems, which used to be part of G.M., $89.3 million to expand factories for making components. The report also notes that Volt buyers can get up to $7,500 in tax credits for buying the car, which is a plug-in hybrid.

Mr. Akerson said many of the subsidies and tax credits were set up during the Bush administration. And the decision to make the Volt was announced in 2006, when the price of gasoline hit $4 after Hurricane Katrina and “was not based on any clairvoyant power to correctly predict the 2008 presidential election.”

Mr. Strickland of the highway traffic agency said most investigations were started after calls to the agency’s phone hot line, warranty claims or accidents, but there were none of those in the case of the Volt’s battery. And the fire burned three cars when no one was around to see; it took time to establish that the fire originated in the Volt and wasn’t arson, he said.

The agency closed its investigation with an announcement that said the car was no more dangerous than an ordinary car filled with gasoline.

The company has since reinforced the metal protecting the battery.

“The Volt is safe,” Mr. Akerson said. “It’s a marvelous machine.”

General Motors has sold more than 8,000 Volts, including 1,500 in December, its best month. The company had hoped to sell 10,000 last year.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 25, 2012

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the hearing would be chaired by Darrell Issa, who heads the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It is actually a hearing of the regulatory affairs subcommittee, chaired by Jim Jordan.

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