Chevy Volt Fire Investigation: House Hearing Gets Testy, but GM Defends Volt

Chevrolet Volt
Chevrolet Volt Reuters

Dan Akerson, the chairman and CEO of General Motors Corp., (NYSE:GM) began efforts to rebuild the image of the Chevrolet Volt in testimony delivered to a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington.

The Volt has come under fire -- both literally and figuratively -- in its first full year on the market. GM's plug-in was investigated by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in November after a June crash test resulted in battery-fueled fires days or weeks later. The NHTSA closed its investigation last week.

In his testimony, Akerson said Wednesday he thought political factors had a hand in the investigation. The U.S. government still owns a minority stake in the automaker after its bailout of the company in 2008. Akerson said that perhaps the divisive political climate contributed.

Nonetheless, the Volt's entry into the market came soon after GM's emergence from its government rescue and restructuring -- and during this political season. As such, the Volt seems, perhaps unfairly, to have become a surrogate for some to offer broader commentary on General Motors' business prospects and Administration policy, Akerson said, according to a transcript released by the House committee.

These outside factors, coupled with advanced technology that is still relatively unfamiliar to a broad consumer base, have likely contributed to a disproportionate level of scrutiny placed on the Volt. These factors should not be discounted as to why federal regulators opened an investigation into the Volt's battery safety after a severe crash test in a laboratory and the intense interest among media that followed.

Indeed, much of the debate was split across party lines Wednesday. House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questioned the administration of President Barack Obama and its role in the conception of the Volt.

Republicans on the committee questioned NHTSA head David Strickland and accused him of keeping the investigation private for too long. The NHTSA did not make its investigation public until November, nearly six months after the original crash test yielded electrical fires.

The delayed public notification of serious safety concerns relating to the Chevy Volt raises significant concerns regarding the unnatural relationship between General Motors (GM), Chrysler and the Obama Administration, the House Oversight committee's preliminary report read.

Rather than allowing GM and Chrysler to enter into a traditional bankruptcy process, the Obama Administration intervened and forced the companies to participate in a politically orchestrated process. The result was that GM and Chrysler emerged as quasi-private entities, partially owned by the United States government.

Both Akerson and Strickland pushed back against that Wednesday, noting that it would be rare for the agency to open an investigation without data from real-world incidents. He confirmed the agency's findings that the Volt, along with other electric vehicles, is safe to drive.

Meanwhile, committee Republicans alleged Strickland and the NHTSA acted to advance the Obama administration's push of electric and fuel-efficient vehicles. President Obama touted the success of GM and Chrysler -- who both were directly bailed out by the government -- and Ford Tuesday night in his State of the Union address.

Whose best interest were you acting in? Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) said, according to The Hill. It certainly wasn't the American public. Is the commitment to the American public or is the commitment to clean energy that we are going to get there any way we can? When the market is ready ... it won't have to be subsidized.

Democrats on the committee pushed back, accusing Republicans of attacking Akerson and Strickland for political gain.

But Akerson wouldn't budge.

We engineered the Volt to be among the safest vehicles on the road, he said, touting the NHTSA's five-star rating and its rating as a top-safety pick  from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. We engineered the Volt to be a technological wonder.

Motor Trend called it a moon shot, and it is.

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