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Fire Incident Raises Conversion Safety Issues; Batteries Not Cause
Jun 19, 2008 (From the CalCars-News archive)
CalCars-News
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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CONVERSIONS AND SAFETY

CalCars has been promoting conversions of vehicles to PHEVs for several years -- not as an end in itself but as a strategy to build awareness and support for a solution, using today's technology and infrastructure, that should be mass-produced by the world's automakers. We always say they could do it better in terms of performance and safety. There are about 150 on the road today (see http://www.calcars.org/­where-phevs-are.html ) and we believe at least a thousand more are in the pipeline. In general, the conversions have achieved their goals.

For several years, some opinion leaders from automakers, utilities and national labs have expressed their fears that "one bad accident" could set back the progress of PHEVs. We have agreed that safety must be the top priority. For that reason, when we've urged carmakers to develop Version 1.0 PHEVs with "good enough" technology, we've always said that there should be no shortcuts on safety. And we've been aware that the conversions by small companies, and those undertaken by individuals using our Open Source design, could never be as well-designed as those by large carmakers. For that reason, we were very encouraged when Hymotion had the resources to meet federal crash test standards and to apply for other certifications. And we've had our fingers crossed about other conversions.

On June 7, a Prius converted to a PHEV caught fire. The converter, Hybrids Plus, notified the owners of all of its converted cars and began an investigation. The batteries came from A123Systems, which had no role in approving the battery pack or system design, but has cooperated in the investigation. To date investigators have not definitively found the cause of the incident.

CALCARS' ROLE AND VIEWS

CalCars's goal is to promote PHEVs and all of the public and private efforts to commercialize them -- and to help the companies that are providing conversion services, components and many related services. (We have signed Non-Disclosure Agreements with many companies in the industry, including Hybrids Plus and A123Systems.) As such, we try to act as "Switzerland," a neutral party, and as a basketball point guard, helping to connect players and direct media to experts. At the same time, we have our own opinions, which, without violating the trust of the companies, we don't hesitate to state.

You can draw your own conclusions from the materials below; here are ours:

  • We're very fortunate no one was hurt.
  • It appears from the second-hand reports that the incident arose from mechanical systems (connectors, wiring) or some software problem.
  • The batteries performed well and did not contribute to the problem; nothing that happened should lead to second thoughts about batteries or about well-designed, carefully tested PHEVs.
  • There's no question that automakers are making safety their first priority, and aftermarket converters need to follow suit. We hope that this and other incidents will lead to a far greater emphasis on safety as well as full and rapid disclosure of incidents.
  • The fact that carmakers can build better and safer PHEVs is self-evident -- but the demand is so great that individuals and companies continue to bang down the doors of the suppliers of conversions.
  • We're all impatient for the Great Transition to Electrification of Transportation to begin -- the longer we have to wait, the larger will be the trend toward third-party conversions, for better or worse.

The story became news when it was reported by the Cooperative Research Network of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA members are increasingly interested in PHEVs). We reproduce that report below, followed by a statement released June 19, 2008 by Hybrids Plus.

In this case, our first reaction was that we regretted that the company did not itself proactively announce the developments. In fairness, it began investigations immediately, and did not have all the answers -- but in the tradition that General Motors has recently set in its "transparency" model for developing the Chevy Volt, we would have been happier had it said as soon as possible what had happened and what it had found out and what it didn't know. That's what we did less than 24 hours after we had an incident (see CalCars' Tech Lead's May 3 posting to the Open Source EAA-PHEV list, "WARNING: Fail-safe systems needed to protect Prius battery in EAA-PHEV conversions" -- the message is mirrored at http://autos.groups.yahoo.com/­group/­eaa-phev/­message/­2548 and see the subsequent messages in response, and also see the "General Disclaimer" warning at http://www.eaa-phev.org/­wiki/­Maillist .

WHY IT'S IMPORTANT TO RESPOND QUICKLY

As plug-in cars reach a tipping point in support from many constituencies, they are increasingly the subject of uniformed or outdated criticisms. Remember when hybrids became popular and all sort of misinformation percolated through media and online sources about high voltage dangers to "first responders" (firefighters and medical personnel)? It took intensive efforts by automakers and rescue organizations to make clear that there were no high voltage wires in doors, and that systems disconnected and drained automatically. In CalCars-News http://www.calcars.org/­news-archive.html we provide rebuttals to several recent stories on PHEVs: reports about plug-in car charging consuming vast amounts of water resources; we point out highly positive articles with negative headlines; and we STILL read about how plug-in cars substitute coal for gasoline resulting in more emissions, or requiring the construction of hundreds of new power plants -- both of which are long-disproved misconceptions.

Before we get to the original sources, a comparison of the relative safety of plug-in and gasoline/diesel vehicles may put the issue in perspective. Imagine if all our vehicles were electric and a company applied to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration for permission to produce an internal combustion car. We think the chances would be low of their getting approval to equip each car with a tank containing a very concentrated highly explosive liquid fuel that could be set off by a stray spark or could catch fire in accidents. But that's what we drive every day. And if and when there is an incident with a plug-in car, let's take note of the National Fire Protection Association's report on vehicle fires (including cars, trucks and other highway vehicles; boats and ships; railroad and mass-transit vehicles; aircraft; and agricultural, construction and yard vehicles). In 2006, vehicle fires totalled 250,00, with 445 civilian deaths, 1,075 civilian injuries and $982,000,000 in direct property damage. See for yourself at http://www.nfpa.org/­displayContent.asp?categoryID=953&itemID=29658

EVENT REPORT

CRN PHEV Field Report Update June 12, 2008 https://crn.cooperative.com/Resources/TechSurveillance/items/2008/FieldReport0613.htm

On June 7, 2008, the converted Prius plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) owned by Central Electric Power Cooperative in Columbia, SC, was destroyed by an internal fire that occurred during a routine drive. Thankfully, there were no injuries. But the converted Prius was destroyed. The cause of the fire is not known.

Until further investigation, CRN has advised grounding all test vehicles in the PHEV demonstration and is undertaking a detailed investigation. The limited information available is as follows:

  • The car was a 2008 Toyota Prius outfitted with the Hybrids-Plus PHEV15 conversion kit.
  • There was no data logger installed.
  • The vehicle had previously experienced minor mechanical issues relating to the charger.
  • The fire occurred during routine highway driving. The upholstery in the back seat had caught on fire. The driver pulled over, exited the car, and there was a subsequent explosion.
  • The A123 lithium-ion battery was damaged but remained largely intact and functioning.

CRN has taken the following actions. It has employed Electric Transportation Engineering Corporation (ETEC) of Phoenix, AZ, to perform an initial investigation on the PHEV. This firm has come highly recommended due to its experience with failure analysis and electric cars. The firm will work to determine the cause of the fire and make recommendations if more specialized forensics experts are needed to complete the investigation.


HYBRIDS PLUS STATEMENT (June 18, 2008) See link from http://www.hybrids-plus.com/­ht/­about.html to http://hybrids-plus.com/­ht/­newsletter/­upgrade_PR.html

Hybrids Plus takes immediate steps to strengthen and safeguard all PHEV systems.

We regret the recent failure of a Hybrids Plus PHEV 15 conversion for the Toyota Prius causing significant damage to the vehicle from a resulting upholstery fire. Luckily, there were no injuries in the event, the car was fully insured, and Hybrids Plus is providing a replacement PHEV system to the customer. Safety is our foremost concern. After the incident we notified all owners of Hybrids Plus conversions, described to them the sequence of events in the incident, advising them not to drive until further information was available, and to call Hybrids Plus if there was any sign of a problem with their vehicle.

Over the past week we have conducted two extensive forensic examinations of the vehicle and of the battery pack using a team of experts that included Hybrids Plus technical staff, our cell manufacturer, and experts in electric vehicles. Though the group was unable to conclusively identify an initial fault point, their efforts were concentrated on identifying general areas that could be upgraded for higher safety and reliability. The study did establish with a high degree of confidence that the cells were not the cause of the incident, and that the vast majority of the cells were unaffected by the high temperature to which they were exposed. The Hybrids Plus PHEV system also was able to withstand the high temperatures in that incident, remaining largely intact. Chief Technical Officer for Hybrids Plus, Davide Andrea, extends gratitude to the members of the study group for their efforts, the suggestions provided, and for their unbiased conclusions. As stated by Davide, "We are learning from this incident, reviewing all designs and methods, putting safety first. We are implementing measures that will fully address each and every one of the areas that the study group highlighted."

Hybrids Plus has begun a program to inspect and upgrade all PHEV systems currently in the field, with improvements that will result in increased safety and reliability. While we do not anticipate seeing similarities with the failed system, the first vehicles scheduled for immediate check up are the Prius PHEV 15 systems. The Prius PHEV 30 and then the Ford Escape will follow, although those systems have designs that minimize or eliminate most potential concerns. We will implement this upgrade at no cost to our clients, even for systems that are out of warranty.

Carl Lawrence, CEO of Hybrids Plus, adds, "we are hopeful that the quality and thoroughness of our response to this incident, and resultant improvements in overall system safety and reliability, will lead to increased confidence in the growing PHEV technologies and the industry as a whole."

Hybrids Plus is the second largest provider of PHEV systems, converting Prius and Escape HEVs to plug in hybrids through seamlessly integrated replacement batteries. Hybrids Plus is presently producing a small fleet of V2G (Vehicle To Grid) vehicles using its Inverger(tm) technology, and has recently been awarded an $85,000 grant from Colorado Governor's Energy Office for the commercialization of this technology.


ADDITIONAL FUTURE COVERAGE
We will distribute any additional significant comments or findings by the companies. (We've been told by Hybrids Plus that the narrative in a report by Bloomberg News does not accurately describe what happened in the incident.)
http://www.bloomberg.com/­apps/­news?pid=20601101&sid=aXZxl5AH9nqA&refer=japan

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