Are Electric Cars Safe?

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The GM Volt.

The makers of electric cars have a serious challenge before them. Right now electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf or the Tesla Roadster offer significantly inferior range at much higher prices than conventional cars. Of course, the cost to recharge an electric car is considerably less than the price of gassing up a conventional vehicle—especially with gas prices stubbornly north of $3 a gallon—but the high sticker price for electric cuts deeply into those savings. Car makers like General Motors—which is selling the extended-range electric Volt—need to convince you to buy a vehicle that costs more and is limited in its functionality compared to a conventional, albeit with major green benefits.

But there’s another challenge before electric car makers as well: convincing drivers that an unfamiliar technology is safe and reliable. And that may now prove harder than many carmakers expected. Last week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched an investigation into GM’s Chevrolet Volt after two crash tests of the car caused its lithium-ion battery to spark or catch fire. Those tests came after an incident in the spring in which a Volt battery that had been damaged in a crash test caught fire three weeks later, igniting the Volt and several other nearby cars.

From the NHTSA statement:

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The agency is concerned that damage to the Volt’s batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire. NHTSA is therefore opening a safety defect investigation of Chevy Volts, which could experience a battery-related fire following a crash. Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern.

While it is too soon to tell whether the investigation will lead to a recall of any vehicles or parts, if NHTSA identifies an unreasonable risk to safety, the agency will take immediate action to notify consumers and ensure that GM communicates with current vehicle owners.

GM was quick to get ahead of the news, conducting a press call with reporters Monday morning and sending letters to all Volt owners and dealers explaining the investigation. The company offered any Volt owners who were worried about the safety of their vehicles loaner cars or trucks for the duration of the investigation. It’s also important to note that GM says that there haven’t been any reports among the 5,000 or so Volts that have actually been sold of battery problems or fires after accidents like the ones seen in the NHTSA tests. And the batteries in those test Volts were not drained after the crashes, which may have contributed to the conflagaration later.

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Regardless, GM was standing behind the Volt, the vehicle that has come to symbolize its turnaround from bankruptcy. “My daughter and sons ride in this car,” said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America. “I believe this is safer than any internal combustion car.”

In fact, it might even be safer—crashes in conventional cars results in thousands of vehicle fires every year. After all, it’s not called the internal combustion engine for nothing. But the gasoline-powered vehicle has about a 100-year head start on the electric car—at least in its most recent and widespread iteration—and if there’s one thing I’ve seen again and again on energy policy, it’s that new technologies tend to face automatic skepticism from the public.

We’ve internalized the risks of conventional cars, such that we hardly stop to think about the fact that well over 30,000 Americans die in traffic accidents every year. But we haven’t internalized the risks of electric cars, in part because few of us have ever driven one and in part because those risks haven’t been fully established yet. So far there’s little to indicate that electric cars are unusually risky—NHTSA noted that they had found no problems with electrics beyond the Volt. And it may simply be a matter of ensuring that drivers and technicians know to drain an electric car’s battery after a crash to avoid the risk of a fire, just as you would drain the gas tank in a conventional vehicle. But that’s one more thing car manufacturers will need to teach their customers—and one more challenge to the broad acceptance of electric cars.

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Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME