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SAE, Mercedes, and fire

by David Zatz on

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has re-tested a new refrigerant, HFO-1234yf, which is far less potent as a greenhouse gas than the current American standard, R134a. The new refrigerant or an equivalent had been mandated for future cars sold in the European Union.

Chrysler, Fiat, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and other automakers worked with SAE on the latest test and review, spurred by Mercedes’ reports that the gas can catch fire and release the poisonous hydrogen fluoride. No other automaker or testing agency has been able to replicate the German company’s results, though Volkswagen said it would postpone use of HFO-1234yf.

Mercedes parent Daimler took part in the original SAE testing, which found no safety hazard with the refrigerant, but did not participate this time.

Daimler and SAE have each said the other’s testing is unrealistic; an SAE report said Daimler “created extreme conditions that favored ignition while ignoring many mitigating factors that would be present in an actual real-world collision,” and concluded that a person was 20,000 times more likely to die in a plane crash than in a fire caused by ignition of the refrigerant. Daimler, in turn, said SAE’s test methods diluted the results.

Daimler is the current name of the company formerly known as DaimlerChrysler, which acquired Chrysler Corporation under false pretenses (later admitted by Daimler’s chairman) in 1998. The company sold or took over many of Chrysler’s assets in the course of its ownership, including the advanced Huntsville electronics operations (responsible for Moon-shot electronics and the first auto engine computers, and maker of many Chrysler car stereos and powertrain computers) and Beijing Jeep. Chrysler is currently majority-owned by Fiat Automotive.

GM and Ford tested the refrigerant independently and were unable to find a hazard. SAE analyzed these tests along with crash data, laboratory and in-vehicle simulations, and bench tests which involved over a hundred releases of refrigerant. The first round of testing went from 2007 to 2009.


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