Equipped with LG’s lithium battery, General Motor’s (GM’s) Chevy Bolt—as online rumors predict—becomes the first electric vehicle (EV) with higher risk of fire than gasoline powered vehicles. Last week, GM sent emergency messages to car owners, telling them not to park their car indoors or charge it overnight.
A great advantage of EVs is energy autonomy; owners can let their cars charge overnight, go out the next day with their cars fully charged, and no longer need to line up at gas stations. However, owners of Chevy Bolt might be forced to temporarily stop these amazing daily routines.
In the past two months, nearly one Chevy Bolt fire happened every week, forcing GM to face the music and request owners of Bolt from the 2017–2019 model years to park their car outside and not to let it charge overnight due to an excessively high probability of fire ignition.
As EVs are getting common, people may think that electric cars are more likely to catch fire, but it is actually a misconception caused by extensive news coverage. Even if the fire incidents of Chevy Bolt might seem horrible, the actual probability of an EV catching fire is only 16 per 100,000 cars, which is much lower than the probability of 120 per 100,000 gas powered cars.
▲Hyundai and GM say that batteries are to blame for EV fires (Source: LG Energy Solution)
However, as foreign media reported, if we focus on cars under 3 years old and incidents that occurred when such cars are parked, the chance of gas vehicles catching fire would drop to 3 per 100,000, five times less than Bolt’s 16 per 100,000.
What’s even worse is that, when we look at Chevy Bolt 2019 only, a total of 13 out of 14,371 cars using the LG battery were on fire (5 in 2020 and 8 in 2021); this is an equivalent of 90 fires per 100,000 cars, the likelihood of which is extremely high. Moreover, the 2019 model is less than two years old. Compared with other two-year-old gas powered vehicles, the EV does have higher risk of fire ignition.
Not Changing Battery Means a Big Price to Pay
Unfortunately, the fires were avoidable. A total of 15 Hyundai EVs adopting the same LG lithium battery had caught fire within half a year. Hyundai, finding out that software updates do not work, decided to recall all models using the LG battery in February this year. After batteries of more than 80,000 cars were replaced, fire incidents were finally avoided.
In November 2020, GM announced a software fix to solve the battery-caused fire problems. However, like Hyundai’s case, the software update did not prevent fire incidents. The difference is that GM has yet to propose solutions of battery replacement for all related models.
To owners of the Bolt model, the worst is yet to come. A foreign news website reported an interview with one of the owners whose car burned down at the roadside in July 2020. The owner thought things were not that bad because the car was insured with the battery under warranty, but, to his surprise, the insurance company claimed that the car was worth only half of the amount he paid for it, while GM refused to fix the car by stating that the fire voided the warranty.
The owner ended up getting a “rebuildable” recognition from GM without warranty. To pay off the remaining loan, he had to sell his car at a low price. The owner’s story went viral among car owners.
So far, GM has not yet proposed a solution replacing batteries for all 2019 Bolt owners. Conversely, the car company offered to replace the 2019 model with a new 2022 Bolt by notifying some of the 2019 Bolt owners. Because the new model will be sold at a lower price, GM is willing to pay money to the original model’s owners for car replacement.
As for owners experiencing EV fires, GM officially revealed that it is investigating every incident meticulously and will respond to each of them accordingly. It is a mercy that the said fires did not cause any deaths, but is GM only willing to take the problem seriously when things are that bad?
The fire incidents also triggered a Rashomon effect. As both GM and Hyundai claimed that the fires were caused by battery short circuits, the battery producer LG Energy Solution (LGES)—a subsidiary of LG Chem—refuted the allegation. LGES argued that the two companies’ attribution to batteries produced at its Nanjing plant was wrong. LGES redirected the blame by accusing the two automotive companies of arbitrarily adjusting the charging mechanism without listening to its suggestions.
One way or another, the dispute will definitely be settled. Every company wants to run their business, and automotive companies dare not displease cell suppliers. After all, Hyundai’s EVs are no longer prone to fires while charging. As for owners of Chevy Bolt, they have no choice but to wait for further response from GM. Until then, they could only prepare for the worst and pray.
(Source of first image: Screenshot from this clip)