Chevy Bolt Recall is Sad Reminder of EVs' Achilles Heel

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD



General Motors has finally begun production on a new batch of Chevy Bolts that don’t contain tainted LG batteries which led to at least a dozen fires and a full recall. And sadly, this whole sorry episode just gives easy ammo to EV critics.

If electric vehicles have an especially problematic issue – other than upfront cost – it’s their penchant for catching fire. And when an EV fire starts, it doesn’t go out easily.

Take this Tesla fire from earlier this year, for instance – on April 17, firefighters discovered a crashed Tesla Model S awash in flames. Each time the firefighters put it out, a small flare would shoot back out, reigniting the burned husk.

Chief Palmer Buck of Houston’s Woodlands Township Fire Department equated the fire to a “trick birthday candle.”

In the end, it took eight firefighters seven hours and 28,000 gallons of water to put out this single car fire. By contrast, fires involving internal combustion vehicles usually require 300 gallons of water. CBS notes that the volume of water required to fight an EV fire is well beyond the capacity of a single fire engine and is more akin to what the typical American home uses in two years!

Many of you probably aren’t shocked by any of this, because it seems that EVs carry a certain level of fundamental risk.

While the 12-volt batteries that start gas-powered vehicles rarely catch fire – all such 12-volt batteries made since the ‘90s are sealed – the gigantic EV batteries are a different story entirely.   

As The American Spectator points out, “Electric car batteries … are very high-voltage batteries — 400 volts is typical; 800 volts is becoming common — and they are fire-prone by design … a process called thermal runaway can trigger a fire without a spark — or an impact.”

Relatively minor accidents can result in raging infernos that take an ocean to extinguish. And it gets worse when we shine the spotlight on the fire departments, themselves – according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) survey from last year, 31% of fire departments in the US don’t train on how to fight EV fires, and 50% said their department had no “special procedures” for this special class of fire.

This isn’t the fault of the FDs. They simply don’t have the experience. Globally, only 1 in 250 cars on the road is electric, while in the U.S. plug-in EVs account for 2% of all vehicles. That makes for comparatively few accidents involving EVs.

But the Chevy Bolt recall had nothing to do fiery crashes. A relatively small number of LG’s batteries contained cells with a torn anode and a folded separator, and during charging, these could cause a fire.

GM has recently begun installing safer batteries in its newer Bolts, and owners of model years 2017-2019 will have all the modules in their batteries swapped out. Dealers will also begin installing new diagnostic software that checks battery packs for defects.

But we’re still left with an especially nasty Achilles heel, and we may simply learn to deal with it. The battery danger partially explains why we’ve been so reticent to deploy EV fast-chargers (and why they often don’t recharge EVs to 100%). In turn, that prolongs our collective feeling of “range anxiety.”

In the case of the Bolt, and before their battery modules are swapped out, owners are supposed to park their vehicles outside and charge them indoors overnight (which can be problematic when parking is at a premium).

One thing’s for certain – this relatively minor defect has cost GM dearly, and they plan to recoup at least some of their recall-induced $2 billion loss from LG.