According to the very people trying to sell them, electric vehicles are slated to become the hottest commodity on the automotive market since the Ford Pinto, Pontiac Fiero, or Ferrari 458 Italia. But, following a swath of highly publicized fires, there's been this creeping narrative that there may be some unaddressed safety concerns pertaining to EVs. Numerous video clips of vehicles spontaneously combusting in Asia and local media reports of phantom garage fires in North America have helped feed the story, with regulators now taking accusations of battery flambé extremely seriously.

Case in point is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's new investigation into the Chevrolet Bolt. The agency's Office of Defects Investigation received just two complaints regarding 2018 and 2019 Bolts that were alleged to have caught fire in a similar manner. But lids were flipped when the NHTSA realized it had seen a 2017 model with a similar burn pattern working its way up through the rear seat. The group is now launching a preliminary evaluation to decide whether these were freak accidents or if the Chevy Bolt actually has a tendency to catch fire while nobody is around.

Since the mere suggestion of a specific model having safety issues is often all it takes to cement it into vehicular lore, we want to be extremely clear in saying there's little proof of anything at this juncture. A handful of Bolts have caught fire under suspiciously similar circumstances and the NHTSA wants to make sure that it doesn't pertain to the other 77,842 examples manufactured between 2017 and 2020.

It might also be nice for regulators to nip any EV fire hazards in the bud before they become the dominant form of personal conveyance. While reports of battery fires routinely get more media attention than the banged-up Buick Century I saw burning on the Henry Hudson Parkway over the weekend, there's not supposed to be much of a difference in the frequency of gasoline and battery-related car fires. But regulators seem terrified that won't remain true as more battery-driven vehicles enter the marketplace. Automakers are no less concerned because absolutely nobody wants to be the brand with the famously dangerous EVs.

General Motors informed us that it was aware of the preliminary examination and intended on cooperating with the investigation fully, as well as launching its own to make doubly sure there's no doubt about what is/isn't happening with the Bolt.

Automotive News, which first caught wind of investigation PE 20-016, said the NHTSA reported that "the fire damage appeared to be concentrated in the EV battery compartment area with penetration into the passenger compartment from under the rear seat," but that nothing conclusive had been determined at this juncture.

From AN:
U.S. safety regulators will evaluate the cause of the fires as well as the scope, frequency and consequence of the alleged defect.

Most NHTSA investigations start as preliminary evaluations, where agency engineers request information from the manufacturer, including data on complaints, injuries and warranty claims. The manufacturer can also present its view regarding the alleged defect and may issue a recall.

After the evaluation, NHTSA will either close the investigation or move into the next phase. If a safety-related defect exists, according to NHTSA, the agency may send a "recall request" letter to the manufacturer.
A lot of the concerns pertain to the unique dangers of battery fires - something we recently covered following a report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) claiming most U.S. fire departments couldn't handle them. The NTSB has been cracking down on newer automotive technologies in general but has recently focused on electric vehicle fires as manufacturers gear up to dump countless new models into various markets over the next few years.

a version of this article first appeared on TTAC