Burning Volts and B-29s

By Bill Moore

Posted: 22 Nov 2011

Officially now, the tally of thermal incidences -- a.k.a fires or nearly so -- in which the Chevrolet Volt has been, in one fashion or another, involved now stands at six since its launch 12 months ago. With some 5,400 on the roads, that is approximately 1 in 1,000 (0.001111). In an age that expects numbers more like one in a million, it's patently obvious that General Motors has some work to do technically and from a PR perspective; especially since, to our knowledge, neither Nissan at some 8,000 LEAF sales in the US (20,000 globally) and Mitsubishi with 17,000 i-MiEVs on the road have had no similar problems.

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As for the six fires, the Volt was absolved of blame in two of them. Both appear to be the case of being in the wrong garage at the wrong time. It is likely that faulty garage wiring may have played a role, but that's speculation at this point.

The other four incidents can be attributed to the Volt's battery pack shorting out and causing fires in three of four NHTSA crash test vehicles. In the first incident last May, a Volt that had been smashed in a simulated side impact collision caught fire in a storage area three weeks after the test. The damaged battery pack had not been discharged after the test, a procedure that should have been conducted, but wasn't.

The next three vehicles were also crash test vehicles that NHTSA deliberately retested after the first fire. Two of the cars caught fire and the third sparked and smoked, but no fire occurred. In one of the vehicle, researchers deliberated rolled a Volt upside down to simulate a collision and rollover.

As a consequence, NHTSA has launched a formal investigation of the Volt and its battery pack, the cells for which are manufactured by LG Chem in Korea. GM is fully cooperating, and both entities stress that there have been no incidences of Volts operated by public being involved in crashes that resulted in battery-generated fires.

When I read about the three latest crash test sparked fires, I recalled something I once read about the development of the B-29 Superfortress in the dark days of the Second World War. I don't mean to downplay the seriousness of the Volt battery issue, but I personally find the history of this particular cutting edge program instructive. Anytime you develop groundbreaking new technology, you always run the risk of setbacks due to unforeseen circumstances. The development of the Boeing B29 was such an endeavor.

Conceived in the mid-1930s, the technology to develop the massive 120,000 pound machine simply didn't exist; it wouldn't until 1940 and even then only just barely. When the U.S. Army Air Corps saw the wooden mockup that year, they immediately placed the order with Boeing for what eventually be more than 3,000 aircraft. At the time, Boeing was busily engaged in building their smaller B-17 for the war then raging in Europe. The B-17 Flying Fortress was vintage 1930's technology: massively wide wings, unpressurized fuselage, a lumbering speed that made it vulnerable to enemy fighters. In contrast, the B-29 was sleek, fast, high-flying, capable of dropping 16,000 tons of bombs from its twin bomb bays, easily twice that of the B-17. It was also incredibly complicated with heavy machine guns remotely controlled by gunners and an onboard analog computer, one of the first of its kind.

But the real problem with the plane was its engines, four powerful, 2,200 hp Wright R3350 Cyclones that had the nasty proclivity of catching fire when they overheated. To save weight, Wright had substituted a magnesium crankshaft in place of steel. To reduce drag and increase speed, Boeing had designed cowling flaps that turned out to be too small to adequately cool the big, twin row radials burning 100 octane gasoline. It proved a lethal miscalculation for air crews. The engine, which needed to reach cooler air at higher altitudes as quickly as possible, would overheat, starting a chain reaction that caused the engine to catch fire, eventually igniting the main wing spar, which catastrophically failed, sending the burning plane plummeting grotesquely towards the ocean below.

Boeing lost its best test flight crew, led by Eddie Allen, when an engine caught fire on one of the early prototypes -- XB-29 #2 -- crashing into a meat processing plant and killing 18 workers as well as the 11 crew members. Boeing wanted to stop work on the plane and only continued when the Army assumed full responsibility for its development, which continued well into 1944. The plane was so problem-prone and being modified so frequently that as soon as it left the factory it was flown to Wichita, Kansas to be refurbished. B-29s, including the two nuclear bombers Enola Gay and Bocks Car, were built just a few miles from where I write at what is now Offutt Air Force Base, then the Martin Bomber Plant, where my father worked a few months before joining the U.S. Army.

Eventually, most of the serious problems with the plane were resolved, the faulty Wright engines eventually replaced by improved Cyclones and then Pratt engines. The last B-29 was taken out of service in 1960 having been superseded briefly by the B-50, an upgraded version; the B-49, the first long-range jet bomber; and then the B-52, a fair number of which are still flying more than a half century after it was designed. Coincidentally, a dark charcoal gray G or H model flew low over my house just a few days ago headed into Offutt.

My point is that the road to new technology is very typically a rough one, plagued by setbacks. If Boeing management had had its way, the B-29 would never have been built. It wouldn't have lifted Chuck Yeager and the X-1 into the air to break the sound barrier. It wouldn't have evolved into the C-97 Stratocruiser, which served for many years as a commercial airliner before the introduction of the 707, and as an aerial refueling tanker for the U.S. Air Force. I got to fly in one of the last in service while a young cadet in the Civil Air Patrol.

Unlike the loss of the first B-29, there have been no fatalities, thankfully. GM is not only cooperating with the NHTSA, but is now offering free loaner vehicles to Volt owners who may be concerned about the safety of their cars. My guess is few of them will take GM up on the offer, after all NHTSA gave the Volt its highest safety rating. Still, whatever the cause, whoever is to blame, the problem needs to be solved to all of our satisfaction. I am confident, it will be. Incidentally, the owner of the first Volt to be lost in that Connecticut garage fire just took delivery of his second Volt.

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