General Motors' Volt electric car is subject to risky battery fires, making it a highway hazard. Right? Wrong. At least the Volt, from anything we know currently, is no more of a risk than cars powered by tanks of gasoline. Yet such is the power of headlines in a new context — electric automobiles — that GM may have plenty to sweat about in a high stakes crisis communication exercise.
AP reported recently that "The government is investigating new fires involving the lithium-ion batteries in General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Volt to assess the fire risk in the electric car after a serious crash." The fires, however, occurred in government-conducted tests, not on the highway. Headlines, or even lead paragraphs, don't necessarily capture such distinctions. It's nice to see that the federal government is evaluating the safety of a promising new automobile, but how about the market
buoyancy of the resulting headlines?
Possibly GM should issue to its Volt dealers this blog post from The Energy Collective, which notes that "The real problem, of course, is not the Volt or its lithium-ion battery but the fact that we are dealing with stored energy. Storing energy in any form involves risk, regardless of whether the energy is stored in the form of a charged lithium-ion battery, a full tank of gasoline or pressurized gas....The issue is not that the Volt battery is more dangerous than a tank of gasoline or pressurized gas, but that it is less familiar."
The AP story noted partway down that Volts have OnStar safety communications systems on board and that "GM knows real time about any crash significant enough to potentially compromise battery integrity." So nobody's driving fast and loose with a risky new technology under the hood, or where the gas tank used to be.
But given the stakes to the U.S. economy in a new, energy-efficient automobile succeeding, or not, Volt crash-testing ought to be conducted with some sort of headline protective device, or procedure, in place — yes, of course, one that preserves press freedom as well.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is conducting the Volt tests, made a stab at that in the statements it issued about the Volt battery incidents. "NHTSA continues to believe" the agency said, "that electric vehicles have incredible potential to save consumers money at the pump, help protect the environment, create jobs and strengthen national security by reducing our dependence on oil."
Now, if only they can be made durably resistant to crash test headlines.
Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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