High Voltage: GM's New Hybrid Requires Special Handling

The late comedian George Carlin once observed that "electricity is really just organized lightning." When you're dealing with lightning, however, it is a pretty good idea to know what you are doing.

That, basically, is the reasoning behind the plan by General Motors to educate police, paramedics, firefighters and other first-responders about the technology behind Chevrolet's new, soon-to-be-launched Volt, its first extended-range electric car.

GM and its in-vehicle security division, OnStar, are partnering with various first-responder associations to conduct a series of training sessions in a number of cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit, beginning in the fall.

The gas-electric hybrid is a significant project for GM and the company is apparently leaving nothing to chance, especially the well-being of its customers and the people who respond to accidents and emergencies involving the vehicle.

Carmen Benavides, Chevrolet's director of safety, said the Volt is "the next gen, the next evolution" of the battery-operated vehicle.

The Detroit-based automaker wants "to raise the comfort level" of paramedics, police and fire-fighters responding to future accidents by "making sure they know where the shut-offs are" and how to cut through the car's high-strength steel quickly, she said.

Most electric-gas hybrid vehicles use lithium-ion batteries to power the electrical side of their operation. Benavides said the current running through the four-door, four-seat hatchback measures about 360 volts, which is higher than other hybrids.

Such voltage is not inherently dangerous but, Benavides said, Chevrolet believes "a first-responder education program is very important to raise the awareness and understanding of electric vehicle technology."

It is not the first time General Motors has conducted such a training program and Chevrolet's safety director calls it "a natural extension of the collaborative efforts we've had in the past when introducing new safety and other leading technologies."

It is also a clever, built-in marketing strategy.

GM will conduct the highly visible training sessions as it plans to roll out the Volt in selected markets later this year. The automaker says the Volt can travel up to 40 miles on electric power alone without recharging and has an extended range of 300 miles on a full tank of gasoline.

First-Responders Are on Board

First-responders say they welcome the effort GM is making.

Mark Light, the CEO of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said ambulance drivers, police and firefighters face all sorts of unknowns when they respond to auto accidents.

"Electric vehicles," he said, "throw a whole new dimension in there."

GM unveiled the Volt as a concept car at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show.

The Volt's purchase price has yet to be determined but it will qualify for the $7,500 maximum federal tax credit for plug-in electric vehicles.