WASHINGTON – The head of General Motors Co. says the company properly handled a problem with battery fires in Chevrolet Volt electric cars last year.
In written testimony for a congressional hearing Wednesday, GM chairman and CEO Daniel F. Akerson said testing by government regulators resulted in fires "after putting the battery through lab conditions that no driver would experience in the real world."
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the testimony Tuesday.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began studying the Volt last June after a fire broke out in one of the cars three weeks after it was crashed as part of safety testing. Two other fires related to separate safety tests occurred later, and NHTSA opened an official investigation into the vehicle on Nov. 25. The government ended its investigation last week, concluding that the Volt and other electric cars don't pose a greater fire risk than gasoline-powered cars. The agency and General Motors Co. know of no fires in real-world crashes.
But some critics have criticized the government's response, accusing NHTSA of a conflict of interest because the government still owns 26.5 percent of the company's shares. Wednesday's subcommittee hearing of the GOP-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is titled "Volt Vehicle Fire: What Did NHTSA Know and When Did They Know It?"
Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who will chair Wednesday's hearing, said he found it troubling that NHTSA waited several months before notifying the public about the fire, which happened in June but was not made public until November.
"Given the direct government involvement in General Motors, it also prompts questions about whether or not this administration is promoting the rapid distribution of electric vehicles, like the Volt, before doing their homework and understanding how the risks associated with these vehicles should be addressed," Jordan said.
In an email Tuesday, NHTSA spokeswoman Lynda Tran said that following the June fire, the agency needed to determine through careful forensic analysis whether the Volt was the actual cause -- and if so, what the implications were for safety -- and that took time.
"If at any time during this process we had reason to believe that vehicle owners faced any imminent safety risk we would have made that point known to the public right away," she said.
For GM's part, Akerson said: "There would be no stalling or working the bureaucratic process. We'd place our customers' sense of safety and peace of mind first, and we would act quickly."
The company advised Volt owners to return their cars to dealers for repairs that will lower the risk of battery fires. GM hopes that by adding steel to the plates protecting the batteries, it will ease worries about the car's safety. The vehicles are covered by a "customer satisfaction program" run by GM, which is similar to a safety recall but allows the carmaker to avoid the bad publicity and federal monitoring that come with a recall.
"The Volt is safe," Akerson said.