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GM's $2 billion Chevy Bolt fire recall casts shadow over electric vehicle market

Industry officials worry about the potential impact any fires could have when the industry is investing billions in the shift to battery power.

General Motors has expanded the recall of its Chevrolet Bolt electric car because of concerns about potential battery fires, adding 73,000 more vehicles, for a total of about 142,000 cars — every single one that Chevy has sold so far.

The combined cost of the recall will reach nearly $2 billion as the auto industry plans to roll out dozens of new electric models over the next 24 months to meet President Joe Biden’s goal that electric vehicles reach 50 percent of total U.S. sales by 2030.

GM's EV lineup includes the launch of its electric Hummer pickup and an all-electric Cadillac Lyriq, which will use a different battery technology from the Bolt’s. The problem appears to involve manufacturing defects that can cause the batteries to short-circuit, even when parked.

“In rare circumstances, the batteries supplied to GM for these vehicles may have two manufacturing defects — a torn anode tab and folded separator — present in the same battery cell, which increases the risk of fire,” the company said in a statement.

GM initially advised owners to limit charging, but it then announced that it would recall 69,000 early Bolt EVs to replace the suspect packs, which it said would cost about $800 million.

It’s not the only manufacturer that has had to deal with EV fire problems. Hyundai has recalled about 90,000 of its Kona EV models because of what it said this year was the “increase[d] risk of a fire while parked, charging and/or driving.”

The problem with the Kona appears to have been the same as what ails GM’s Bolt models: manufacturing defects involving batteries supplied by LG Chem, one of the largest manufacturers of lithium-ion technology. The South Korean supplier’s shares took a sharp hit Monday in the wake of the Chevy announcement.

Other manufacturers, including the EV giant Tesla, have found themselves in the news because of battery fires. In December, a home in suburban San Diego was destroyed when a Tesla Model S caught fire as it was charging in the garage. Investigators blamed a faulty thermal management system designed to keep the battery pack cool.

Still, the coverage of EV fires may be overblown, said Sam Abuelsamid, lead auto analyst for Guidehouse Insights. Seven Chevy Bolts have caught fire, or about 0.006 percent of those on the road. By comparison, the National Fire Protection Association said 212,000 gas and diesel vehicles caught fire in 2018, or about 0.07 percent of those on U.S. roads.

“Yes, we’ve seen some battery fires, but the numbers are small, and they need to be put into perspective,” Abuelsamid said.

Nonetheless, industry officials privately concede that they worry about the potential impact any EV fires could have when the industry is investing billions in the shift to battery power. New models are reducing concerns about range anxiety, and prices are beginning to fall. Manufacturers don’t need fires to become one more reason motorists resist going electric.