The apparent safety woes of the much-touted, all-electric Chevrolet Volt touched off a firestorm on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning, as House Republicans charged that the Obama administration conspired with General Motors Co. to conceal those risks from consumers while pushing the vehicle as part of the "green" future.
"We have now created a question of trust. I think we're protecting the administration more than the American public," said Rep. Mike Kelly, Pennsylvania Republican and member of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on regulatory affairs, which heard testimony Wednesday from GM CEO Daniel Akerson and administration officials.
Mr. Kelly and others suspect that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration intentionally withheld concerns for several months that the electric Volt's lithium-ion battery could explode during a crash.
The car is a centerpiece of the planned market rebound for GM, which the federal government rescued from the verge of bankruptcy in 2008 and 2009. Uncle Sam still owns about a quarter of the company's stock.
In June, a Volt burst into flames while being stored in a warehouse after safety tests. The NHTSA launched an investigation into the incident, but it kept that probe under wraps until November and went public only after news reports of the fire began to leak.
The administration completed its investigation last week and declared that the Volt and other all-electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf do not pose any greater risk than traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.
"Not only would I drive it, I would drive my mother, my wife and my baby sister with me," NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland told the subcommittee.
Mr. Strickland maintained that the inquiry was kept quiet so the public wouldn't be alarmed unnecessarily, and to allow investigators time to be certain that the battery was the cause of the fire.
The Volt exploded during a weekend, when no one was present to witness it, he said. Several other cars were being stored in the same garage, and it took weeks to determine that the Volt battery was responsible for the explosion, Mr. Strickland said. For a brief time, authorities considered whether an arsonist had torched the building.
Republicans said those explanations were little more than excuses and that it was the Obama administration's tireless push for green technology, which includes heavy taxpayer subsidies directed at the Volt, that led to the silence.
"I hear you. I don't believe you," Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and the panel's chairman, told Mr. Strickland.
Republicans also pressed Mr. Strickland on why he remained mum about the investigation during House testimony in October, long after the probe had begun but before the press or public learned of it.
Mr. Strickland's boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, reassured the driving public in December that the Volt was safe to drive, even though the NHTSA was more than a month from completing its investigation.
Some viewed Mr. LaHood's statement as more evidence that the Obama administration was determined to shield its pet project at all costs.
"This is a halo car, not so much for General Motors, but for this administration," Mr. Kelly said. "If GM thought this was such a good investment, they would have launched it themselves many years ago. If these cars are so great and so marketable, why do we have to subsidize them so heavily?"
The federal government offers tax credits of as much as $7,500 for the Volt, and a handful of states offer additional incentives.
Those tax credits, along with the fact that several GM board members were appointed by the Obama administration, have helped the Volt become a symbol of the federal government's and environmentalists' desire for cleaner cars, Mr. Akerson said.
"We did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag," he said. "Sadly, that is what it has become."
As a result of the fire and subsequent investigation, Mr. Akerson said, GM has further encased the battery to prevent it from being punctured and at risk of exploding. Such an incident has not occurred outside laboratory tests, he said.
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