CHICAGO -- As Boeing Co. and federal regulators wrestle with the safety issues plaguing the launch of the Dreamliner 787 and its lithium-ion batteries, there are parallels with the experience of the auto industry but far more differences -- due largely to the divergent approaches of government safety regulators.
In both industries, the introduction of lithium-ion batteries – as opposed to the more common nickel-cadmium battery — was driven by the quest for fuel efficiency and potency, since lithium-ion batteries hold their charge far longer and operate at a higher voltage.
Problems cropped up early on in both industries.
Boeing's 787 troubles include a battery fire on the ground and an emergency landing due to smoke from the battery. On Thursday, the National Transportation Safety Board indicated it had made little progress in determining the cause of the fires and said investigators were still at an early stage in their probe.
In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigated the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid after its lithium-ion battery pack caught fire during crash testing. Last year, Anaheim, Calif.-based Fisker Automotive had two incidents involving battery fires in its Fisker Karma hybrids: one while a customer was charging the car in a garage in May and the second in a parking lot in August.
But despite the common focus on safe transportation, the regulatory apparatus and approach in the two industries are strikingly different. As is common in airline manufacturing, Chicago-based Boeing Co. worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration from the beginning to gain certification, creating safety standards for the new technology.
While certifying the 787, an airliner made largely of carbon fiber-composite materials in place of metal, the FAA developed 17 "special conditions." With such novel design and technologies the existing certification standards were not adequate, the agency said.
In a speech last May, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta praised the collaboration. "The FAA and Boeing developed a new way of working together," he said. Huerta defended the agency's approach in a speech Wednesday before the Aero Club of Washington: "Some have asked the question whether the FAA has the expertise needed to oversee the Dreamliner's cutting-edge technology. The answer is yes, we have the ability to establish rigorous safety standards and to make sure that aircraft meet them."
For auto manufacturers such as Ford Motor Co. or General Motors Co., by contrast, more safety standards are set by industry groups. There are roughly 70 federal safety regulations for auto manufacturers compared with hundreds for aircraft. Only after a car goes to market will the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administer a one-size-fits-all crash test that ranks a vehicle on its five-star safety scale. (The weight provided by the batteries is one reason electric vehicles tend to score well.)
Both Ford and GM say they do more battery testing on their electric and hybrid vehicles than in fuel-based vehicles because of the battery's role as a keystone technology. "It has been remarkable the lack of real problems with hybrid vehicles," said Dennis Virag, president of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Automotive Consulting Group Inc. "The industry has done a great job as far as technological development and implementation."
While the auto industry has been making vehicles with lithium-ion batteries for three years, (the Dreamliner was the first commercial plant to use the rechargeable lithium-ion battery), the government still is adapting to the technology. Jose Alberto Ucles, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that out of the roughly 70 safety regulations for motor vehicles, the agency has no new procedures specific to electric vehicles and that its efforts are a "work in progress."
In a speech in May at a symposium for electric vehicle safety in Washington, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said the agency is "actively working" on conducting crash tests and lithium-ion battery research. He said the agency also has initiated a safety research program to identify risks and measure the safety performance of lithium-ion powered vehicles. Asked about details of the research, Ucles said it was too early to discuss specifics.
While Boeing spent more than a million hours testing the lithium-ion batteries, some still said the technology was rushed to market. "They are pushing the technology too far too fast," said Myron Stokes, an analyst for automotive and aerospace industry analysis site eMotionReports.com in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Others said the battery malfunction may be just a fluke. "I think the design is probably adequate," said Gordon Bethune, former chief executive officer of Continental Airlines. "My wild-ass guess is it's a bad bunch of batteries."
Initial concerns about the 787 were focused not on the battery but the aircraft's novel composite materials. The 787 is the first major airliner with composite materials that comprise more than half its weight. When the FAA added the 17 extra certification conditions, only one pertained to the lithium-ion battery.
In September 2011, the U.S. Government Accountability Office filed a report to Congress on the FAA's oversight of the safety of composite airplanes. GAO cited four key concerns, all centered on the composite materials used in the 787. There was no mention of battery concerns.