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by John Cadogan

Green new cars look like being a safe haven for rats if one Chevy Volt owner’s experience in the US is anything to go by. You might be doing the environment a disservice if your battery powered next new car becomes a de facto incubator for rats. This is especially relevant if you are waiting until the new, green Holden (nee-Chevy) Volt plug-in electric car goes on sale here next year.

Flashback to the last North American winter (our summer, just gone): the chaps at cars.com bought a new Chevy Volt to see how the plug-in electric car would fare over the harsh Chicago winter. With the Volt safely plugged in to a ChargePoint charging station in a car park overnight, the temperature outside plummeted.

Around 9pm ChargePoint did the Apollo 13 bit and called ‘Houston’ with a ‘problem’ relating to the Volt’s recharging. The installation had what’s called a ‘ground fault’, which is where electricity escapes to earth instead of into the battery. That’s bad. To avert calamity, a doo-hickey called a core-balance relay trips, and turns off the juice. (Which is exactly what happens if you trip the safety switch at home, say by showering and blow-drying your hair at the same time.)

Next morning, in the Volt: Warning lights a go-go and a screen demister on the fritz. Diagnosis? A rat (or rats) had taken up residence near the Volt’s battery, which gets toasty warm during recharging overnight – exactly the opposite to the weather Mother Nature was dishing up outside. Even after charging, the Volt maintains a minimum battery temperature, because batteries die quickly in the cold. Your average rat likes that.

Rats get bored when they’re comfortable, and there’s nothing a toasty clan of pesky rodents likes more than chowing down on a car’s wiring harness, the upshot of which was a $750 repair bill. Ouch. And it’s not covered by warranty. Double-ouch.

Rats, apparently, simply enjoy the texture and delicate complexity of a modern automotive wiring loom.

With winter just kicking off down under, it’s a chilling scenario for intending Aussie EV buyers to consider. The Volt’s not due here in Australia until 2012, but the rat race is already on. Rats everywhere are looking for any kind of suitably weather-proof, exothermic accommodation. It happened last week.

In the final week of autumn, the Victorian cops pulled over a Toyota in Ararat for a roadworthy check after they noticed the front bumper being held on with gaffer tape.

They lifted the bonnet and found six illegal rats riding unrestrained in the engine bay. (Time to cue the banjos, folks…) In the interests of comfort, and to dress up and personalise the place, the six-pack of uninvited rats had moved in a great deal of padding in the form of dried grass, which is the next best thing to spraying petrol around and lighting up a foot-long spliff if you want to start an underbonnet fire.

It makes you wonder how often the driver was doing those recommended underbonnet fluid level checks. Probably not fortnightly, as the owner’s manual suggests.

Apparently the penalty for rat smuggling and stuffing the engine bay with dried grass is … nothing, so thankfully Jethro & Cletus’s Toyota was able to be defected for having one of the car’s rear tyres running on the steel belts. The rats were questioned by police, and let off with a caution.

You think that’s bad? Remember the Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ Snakes on a Plane? Life has started imitating art. Rat cunning has reached for the skies. Five rats hijacked a Qantas 767 just 10 minutes before the passengers were due to board a flight from Sydney to Brisbane earlier this week. They were discovered by a diligent flight cabin crew hiding in the emergency medical equipment storage compartment onboard. (The rats were hiding, not the cabin crew…)

Above: In light of recent ratty developments at Qantas, perhaps Sam L should’ve left one of those snakes alive…

According to a Qantas spokeswoman, they were only “baby rats” – so, presumably, that’s okay. Or at least, better. Thank God they weren’t adult rats, huh? That would’ve been much worse. (Who trains these spin doctors?)

Above: A Qantas Boeing 767 in rat-boarding mode, recently…

“We are currently investigating how they got on board the aircraft,” the spokeswoman told AAP. Presumably these investigations are taking place via Ouija board: Apparently the rats, despite being only babies, lacked boarding passes, and were put to death by flight attendants – which is something to think about next time you travel the friendly skies with the flying marsupial.

Rats are one of modern life’s constants. What can you do? Well, you could buy a Nissan Leaf. Automotive PR is ever the game of one-upmanship, and following the ‘rat-ate-my-Volt’ event, Nissan’s PR was quick to point out that this would never happen to the Leaf EV, the battery of which is allegedly rodent-proof. And it will remain officially thus until the first rat successfully infiltrates the Leaf’s rodent-proof firewall. (It’s worth noting that the rats that infested the Volt didn’t damage the battery; they damaged the wiring.)

Another potential road-going rat renaissance remedy suggested by an online commenter is to encircle your EV with a ring of human urine – a practice which would probably be acceptable only in a few places: (say) Lygon St in Melbourne, anywhere in Darlinghurst in Sydney, or Hindley St in Adelaide. Frankly, however, such behaviour is unlikely to win you many friends in the carpark at the local pre-school on Monday morning. (Just try explaining yourself to the cops, or DOCS, in these circumstances…) Whatever the location, it would be a bad idea to perform an EV urine encirclement while charging the thing, however, for fear of doing the ‘ole sparky’ St Vitus dance.

Perhaps technology will rescue us from an EV-inspired future rodent redux. EV charging station manufacturers are apparently hard at work developing a rodent attack alert and response system. There’s something about sending sms alerts to owners after grounding faults manifest themselves at the fangs of a rodent is in the pipeline there.

It all sounds overly complex if you ask me.

Humbly I’d suggest that mother nature has already invented the made-to-measure protector for an automotive wiring loom exposed to the threat of rat attack. You might have heard of it: it’s called a ‘cat’. Sometimes the old-fashioned solutions are the best.

If that doesn’t work, maybe the Qantas investigation will be finished with its Ouija board in the near future, and we can call up the Pied Piper and find out what tune he used to solve Hamelin’s pesky problem all those years ago.






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