Battery Fires Halt Chrysler's Plug-in Hybrid Test Fleet
Chrysler is changing the batteries on a fleet of 132 plug-in Ram and Town & Country minivans being tested by local utilities and governments.
Battery fires have broken out on three prototype Ram hybrid pickup trucks, a problem that forced Chrysler to pull its entire test fleet of plug-in hybrids from the road.
The automaker, which had been loaning 109 plug-in hybrid Rams to municipalities and utilities since last year, said it would perform a battery upgrade on all the trucks, including 23 plug-in hybrid Town & Country minivans also in the test program. Utility fleet managers in Colorado, Michigan, and Utah reported the fires over the past seven months during which the trucks were parked and shut off, Chrysler said. While some parts of the interior were damaged, no injuries were reported and the vehicles remained in operating condition. No problems with the plug-in minivans, which were introduced in April, have been reported.
"This action is being taken to build upon the lessons from the initial deployment and to concentrate resources and technical development on a superior battery," said Michael Duhaime, the company's EV powertrain director, in a statement.
Chrysler said it did not know why the batteries overheated and caught fire, but that it would use a "different battery chemistry" for the remainder of the $123.2-million program, which ends in 2014. Chrysler would not say if would use another supplier for the newer batteries (Electovaya, a Canadian company, holds the current contract).
The 132 plug-in hybrids, funded in part by $58 million in grants from the Department of Energy, will be handed back to fleets "as soon as possible." In total, the vehicles have traveled more than 1.3 million miles without major incidents.
The Ram PHEV uses Chrysler's discontinued "two-mode" hybrid system last used on the short-lived Durango Hybrid, pairing a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with a 12.9-kWh lithium-ion battery. The four-wheel-drive truck promises 20 miles of electric range, with the capability to send excess power back to the electrical grid when plugged in. The Town & Country PHEV delivers a claimed 22-mile electric range from its 3.6-liter V6 and 12.1-kWh battery. In testing, the Ram and Town & Country hybrids reached a fleet average of 37.4 mpg and 55 mpg respectively.
Chrysler's plug-in technology, in addition to an all-electric Fiat 500, is expected to enter production after 2014.
Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving and riding in cars he doesn't own. He writes regularly for MSN Autos and The Boston Globe and also contributes to Car and Driver, among other websites and magazines. He lives in Boston and is a member of the New England Motor Press Association.
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