This post was contributed by Sebastian Blanco, editor in chief of AutoblogGreen. Jim Motavalli is on a month-long assignment.
Recently, three companies with upcoming electric vehicles — Volvo, Mitsubishi and Gordon Murray — released images and videos of their cars getting damaged. Glass flying, structures crumping and batteries coming within an inch of their lives. Ouch, right?
Actually, this is a good thing. The images are from recent crash tests of these electric vehicles before the companies involved can offer them for sale. It's the same sort of testing that all major vehicles need to pass, but advanced vehicle companies are putting an emphasis on electric vehicle safety, now that we're nudging our way into the EV era.
You can see what I mean in this video:
Looks safe, right? I mean, safe for a car hitting an immoveable barrier at 40 mph. The other clips show Mitsubishi's i-MiEV and the small city car called the T.27 from Gordon Murray. Volvo is making its crashed car, a C30 Electric, a highlight at the very visible Detroit Auto Show. In all cases, the vehicles performed remarkably well, which is exactly what we expect and need. All other plug-in vehicles on the market today — the Tesla Roadster, the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf — have also undergone this sort of testing, but those videos and pictures were released ages ago. It's notable that this new batch is coming out all at once.
The bigger question, of course, is whether or not people "need" to see these kinds of videos more often with this new technology than they do with the types of cars they're familiar with. Do a lot of people worry that electric cars will shock them, the way Dave Letterman pretended to be shocked by the Tesla Model S a few years ago?
I've been following the development of electric vehicles in depth for almost five years now, and all the reports that I've seen are that plug-in vehicles are safe. In fact, when a Tesla Roadster was crushed by an SUV in Denmark in 2009, the Tesla driver walked away with nothing more than minor bruises. The California utility PG&E says all of the standard crash testing that EVs go through means "The end result is that driving and charging an EV is as safe as driving any type of vehicle in any type of weather, at any time of day."
So, if the testing is the same and real-world results show that plug-ins are safe, does this message take hold with the public? I interviewed Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby recently, and he told me that he thinks people are indeed skeptical that an EV can be safe. This is partly what prompted Volvo to make such a big deal about the crashed C30. I think this is what was behind the public first responder training that Chevrolet did with the Volt last year. I also think that the more you study plug-in cars, the less strange — and, thus, the less dangerous — they seem.
All of this work needs to happen, and it sets the stage for good messages to come out on EV safety. The problem is that there will probably be some terrible accident in the coming year that involves a Leaf or a Volt. When that happens, the message from the media could quickly become "Plug-in cars are dangerous!" It doesn't have to be that way. Just look at David Letterman — he's fine.