Fires in electric car batteries are leading to recalls, lawsuits and fear

This undated photo provided by National Transportation Safety Board, The Orange County Fire Authority battles a fire on a burning vehicle inside a garage in Orange County, Calif.  When firefighters removed the SUV from the garage to assess the fire , they identified the fuel source as the SUV’s high-voltage battery pack.  U.S. safety investigators say electric vehicle fires pose risks to first responders, and manufacturers have inadequate guidelines to keep them safe. (Orange County Sheriff’s Department/National Transportation Safety Board via AP)
Caption
This undated photo provided by National Transportation Safety Board, The Orange County Fire Authority battles a fire on a burning vehicle inside a garage in Orange County, Calif. When firefighters removed the SUV from the garage to assess the fire , they identified the fuel source as the SUV’s high-voltage battery pack. U.S. safety investigators say electric vehicle fires pose risks to first responders, and manufacturers have inadequate guidelines to keep them safe. (Orange County Sheriff’s Department/National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

Credit: Orange County Sheriff’s Department

Credit: Orange County Sheriff’s Department

Jason Dougherty bought his 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV brand new. He’s a car guy who generally trades up every six months or year when something new catches his eye.

The fully electric-powered Bolt, which now has 39,000 miles on it, has been the longest car relationship he’s enjoyed in years. Dougherty especially likes its big savings on gasoline.

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But now that relationship is on the skids, as the 46-year-old assistant dean at Delaware Technical Community College is seeking to secure a buyback offer from General Motors after the car was recalled over concerns about their batteries catching fire.

While GM developed a fix, more than 140,000 Bolts worldwide and the future production of Chevrolet’s EV were trapped in limbo.

The problem arose because of fires with the Bolt EVs, 14 confirmed by GM, which the company pinpointed to two manufacturing defects — a torn battery anode and a folded separator in the same battery cell. The fires appeared to happen mostly while recharging or still plugged in. Or when batteries were nearly full. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has received more than 300 complaints related to the Bolt batteries, but not all of these have been for fires.

FILE - In this Jan. 9, 2017 file photo the Chevrolet Bolt is on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.  General Motors is recalling some older Chevrolet Bolts, Friday, July 23, 2021, for a second time to fix persistent battery problems that can set the electric cars ablaze.  The recall covers about 69,000 Bolts worldwide from 2017, 2018 and part of the 2019 model year. GM says it's still working on repairs but it's likely battery parts will be replaced.(AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
Caption
FILE - In this Jan. 9, 2017 file photo the Chevrolet Bolt is on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. General Motors is recalling some older Chevrolet Bolts, Friday, July 23, 2021, for a second time to fix persistent battery problems that can set the electric cars ablaze. The recall covers about 69,000 Bolts worldwide from 2017, 2018 and part of the 2019 model year. GM says it's still working on repairs but it's likely battery parts will be replaced.(AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Credit: Paul Sancya

Credit: Paul Sancya

Recalls for lithium-ion batteries have happened to other automobile makers as well, including Hyundai, Porsche, and Volvo. The 2019-2020 Hyundai Kona recalls were far smaller — just 4,696 and 6,707 vehicles in each instance, according to NHTSA — while 43,000 Porsche Taycans and 2,200 Volvo Polestar EVs were recalled for total loss of power, not fire hazards.

The recall of all Bolts produced to date represents arguably the most visible and significant setback for the electric vehicle in the U.S., not just for the country’s largest automaker, but for the industry’s nascent transition from gas-powered engines.

The concerns surrounding the Bolt come as all major automakers have released sweeping and ambitious production targets over the next decade for electric vehicles and billions of dollars have been earmarked for everything from the conversion of assembly lines to the construction of charging stations.

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The auto industry seems to unveil new EV investments almost every week. General Motors announced last week a program to install up to 40,000 EV chargers in communities where charging access has been limited, beginning in 2022. And Hertz announced an initial purchase of 100,000 Teslas by the end of 2022, plus new EV charging infrastructure to power them.

“The market is still really small for EVs so it’s not as if there are millions and millions of buyers here in the U.S. just waiting to get them,” said Jessica Caldwell, an automobile industry analyst with Edmunds.com. “So I think it is good that they get their kinks out ... before it becomes mainstream.”

GM has worked closely with the battery manufacturer Seoul-based LG Electronics to develop a solution, which they announced in mid-September: In earlier models, the company will replace the entire battery, but in later models, new software will be installed to check the battery cells for defects. This allows the company to save money, but also makes the recall less unwieldy because replacing 140,000 EV batteries could take a long time.

General Motors has announced plans to restart its Orion Assembly Plant in Michigan on Monday, to build Bolts mainly to provide courtesy transportation for EV customers during their recall repairs. But the freeze on sales of Bolts in dealer inventory remains in place.

General Motors’ recent announcement that it has found a fix for the Bolt’s battery problem has eased some fears, but only some. Even with the repair announcement, owners are mulling if their cars are safe to operate, throwing a wrench into GM’s electric-future vision.

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The recall has generated more than its share of news because it has unfolded slowly, with multiple chapters. First GM warned Bolt owners only to charge the vehicles to 90% of capacity and park them outside because of fire risk. Then came the first recall impacting 60,000 vehicles worldwide, a number that would eventually reach 140,000.

And then on Aug. 20, GM ordered a complete shutdown of new-vehicle production or recall repairs while a fix was determined. Now that a fix has been identified, repairs began earlier this month, GM said.

Facing the mounting concern, Dougherty is torn on how to charge his car. His charger cord will reach the car outside his garage, but it often trips and shuts down in hot, dewy, or rainy weather. So often the car is pulled halfway into the garage, where his charger is located, because General Motors warns owners not to park the cars inside.

“Above all, it’s scary,” Dougherty said.

In the 14 fires GM has confirmed in Chevrolet Bolts, almost all occurred during charging or when the batteries were fully charged. Customers who drained batteries to near zero and then recharged them fully could be at greater risk for fires than those who charge more frequently.

GM has committed to electric vehicles on the heels of its dramatic November 2020 announcement that it plans to offer 30 new EV models globally by 2025, with two-thirds available in North America.

The company took an $800 million charge for the first recalls in the April to June period of 2021 and now anticipates paying $2 billion for the recalls and buybacks. Battery maker LG has agreed to cover $1.9 billion of that, according to GM.

Corporate spokesperson Daniel Flores addressed customers’ worries in an interview with The Inquirer:

“Both companies understand the urgency of what’s being worked on,” he said. “Most importantly, we understand — there are 140,000-plus customers who are waiting very patiently for their recall repairs to begin. We can appreciate the concern. We have and will continue to apologize to our Bolt customers for this obvious inconvenience.”

Now, after the production hiatus, General Motors has assured the public that the problem is simply a manufacturing defect — a torn anode tab and folded separator in the same battery cell.

The 2017 to 2019 Bolts will receive completely new batteries. The company is developing software for 2020 to 2022 models that will diagnose defective cells.

Buybacks are being handled on a case-by-case basis, Flores said.

Dozens of lawsuits have commenced against the carmaker from around the country, but filed in Michigan, the site of GM’s headquarters.

Ben Johns, partner at the law firm Chimicles, Schwartz, Kriner, Donaldson-Smith in Haverford, said his firm represents owners from across the region.

Johns said the case has been frustrating for Bolt owners. He said the firm is working with other lawyers and expanding the cases to include the August recall because even owners who haven’t suffered fires still face a range of anxiety issues and a “significant devaluation of the vehicle.”

“If consumers were aware of this problem, had it been disclosed to them by General Motors, most of them wouldn’t have bought this car in the first place,” Johns said.

The automotive industry is under tremendous pressure to increase driving distances in electric cars, said Yury Gogotsi, a Drexel University engineering professor and an expert on lithium batteries, because consumers have been conditioned to travel at least 200 miles on a single tank in gasoline-powered vehicles.

“The more energy stored in a battery, the more dangerous it becomes,” Gogotsi said. “You have the amount of energy per unit of weight like a hand grenade stored in a battery.”

Lithium-ion batteries might look innocuous, just sealed metal boxes that don’t normally give off an odor and slosh when shaken. But they’re composed of graphite, metals and other materials bathed in liquid electrolytes that are flammable, “like a paint thinner,” Gogotsi said.

Gogotsi’s research shows nanomaterials — engineering on a tiny (nano) scale, which has applications in many industries — would provide much faster charging and more stability for batteries, and reduce risk associated with liquid electrolytes. Zinc is a common and inexpensive element being studied for this application, Gogotsi said.

Other alternatives addressing the safety risk include solid batteries — all solid, no liquid — or batteries that contain lithium-iron phosphate.

Still, neither would provide the range and quick recharge that lithium-ion offers.

“Vehicle fires aren’t anything new; with gasoline engines, we have car fires all the time,” said Josh Lamb, a researcher for Sandia, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. “The only difference is we have a century of experience with internal combustion engines and working with gasoline.”

Lamb has been taking batteries to extreme ends during a decade of tenure with the government contractor — “We basically start fires, and nobody gets mad at us when we do” — and he concludes that part of the trouble with lithium-ion batteries is their comparatively short real-world use time of about 10 years or so.

He’s confident in the fail-safes that have been designed into charging ports and the systems in electric vehicles themselves.

But it’s still worth noting that while a battery is charging, it is vulnerable to stress. Gasoline-powered car owners would never dare refuel a vehicle in their garages while they slept, even if the systems had been in place to make that a reality.

Still, despite fire concerns, lawsuits, and buyback offers, not everyone is ready to give up on their Bolt.

Ray Ianuzzelli is a mechanical engineer who has had his Bolt for just a little over three years. After getting what he called a very generous offer from General Motors to buy back the vehicle — sticker price minus 10% — he decided to stick with his car.

And he’s not concerned about the charging process.

“When you’re charging, especially in the summertime, I could feel the heat from the process,” Ianuzzelli said. “I used to work for a lithium battery company, and I realize there’s a lot of heat generated in that process. The Bolt has the liquid cooling system so it’s keeping the batteries cool but in the process it’s got to eject that heat somewhere and it goes into the garage. That’s not a concern for me.”

The 75-year-old Boothwyn resident is mainly disappointed that he can no longer charge the Bolt in his garage because he likes to keep his vehicles looking new.

Ianuzzelli believes General Motors has not handled the Bolt recalls well. He has a friend with a Hyundai Kona EV and thought that company communicated with its customers more efficiently than GM.

Michele Mueller of Hillsborough, New Jersey, loves her oasis blue 2020 Bolt and just celebrated a year anniversary with it. She likes that the little EV packs enough inside to easily move her traveling theater teaching program from school to school and never have to stop for gas.

But now she’s looking into a buyback.

Not only does Mueller, 48, want to be able to charge overnight without worry, but her line of work has also made her extra cautious.

“I park it at elementary schools,” Mueller said. “For me, the risk is too great of something going terribly wrong.”