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Chevy Volt battery fires prompt probe

Chevy Volt batteries catch fire after government crash tests, but no reports of fires from any Chevy Volt in a highway crash.

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Electric vehicles are critical to President Barack Obama's plans to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. He has called for putting 1 million of the vehicles on the road by 2015.

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The Volt and Nissan's Leaf, with more than 8,000 cars on the road in the U.S., are among the first mass-marketed plug-in electric cars. They went on sale in the 2011 model year. Other automakers are also working on electric vehicles.

Safety testing hasn't raised concerns about electric vehicles other than the Volt, NHTSA said. But the agency is asking manufacturers who have electric cars on the market, or who plan to introduce electric vehicles in the near future, for more detailed information on their battery testing as well as what procedures they have established for discharging and handling batteries, including recommendations for reducing fire risks.

After the first battery fire, GM officials complained that NHTSA did not drain the battery of energy as called for under the automaker's crash procedures. NHTSA normally drains fuel from gasoline-powered cars after crash tests, they said.

Lithium-ion batteries, which are rechargeable, have been the subject of several recalls of consumer electronics. Millions of laptop batteries made by Sony Corp. for Apple Inc., Dell Inc., Lenovo Group Ltd. and other PC makers were recalled in 2006 and 2007 after it was discovered that they could overheat and ignite.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a warning to airlines about the potential for fires in cargo containing lithium-ion and non-rechargeable lithium metal batteries after a United Parcel Service plane crashed near Dubai last year, killing both pilots. The plane, which was on fire, was carrying thousands of lithium batteries.

Incorrectly packaged, damaged or overheated batteries can catch fire, the FAA said.

GM and NHTSA have pointed out that cars with gasoline-powered engines are susceptible to fires after a crash.

In the event of a crash, NHTSA's advice to consumers is to do the same thing they would do in a gasoline-powered car — get out of the vehicle and move a safe distance away. The agency also recommends against storing a severely damaged electric car in a garage or near other vehicles.