GM recalls 68K EVs. Are batteries safe?

Source: By Miranda Willson, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 16, 2020

General Motors Co. announced a voluntary recall last week of more than 68,000 electric vehicles worldwide due to five reports of potential battery fires.

The move adds to a string of fire incidents involving batteries used in electric vehicles and with energy storage. In August, a utility in Arizona released a report finding a defective battery cell sparked an explosion in an energy storage facility last year (Energywire, July 29). BMW and Hyundai also issued EV recalls this year because of battery fire concerns.

The GM recall applies to the Chevrolet Bolt — the only electric car from GM currently available in the U.S.— with 2017-2019 model years, the company said. Of the 68,667 affected cars, 50,925 were sold in the U.S., according to GM.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the incidents, and GM hopes to fully remedy the problem by early next year, the Detroit-based automaker said in a statement.

“The safety of our products is the highest priority for the entire GM and Chevrolet team,” GM said. “We are working around the clock on our continued investigation.”

The news comes as GM aims to transition to an all-electric car company that it says will rival Tesla Inc. The company announced earlier this year that it plans to roll out 12 new EV models by 2023 (Climatewire, July 29).

The recall won’t deter that EV strategy, said Kevin Kelly, senior manager of product and brand communications at GM. The automaker is developing its own Ultium cell batteries, which are different from the batteries used in the Chevrolet Bolt cars, Kelly said.

“Ultium cells are a different chemistry and use the latest manufacturing technology,” he said in an email.

GM has not yet determined the exact cause of the fires, but the battery fire risk appears to be linked to charging the batteries “to full, or very close to full, capacity,” the company said. It has instructed dealerships to update the cars’ battery software so the maximum charge level is 90%, and customers were advised to change their vehicle settings to avoid charging beyond that capacity.

Recalls of cars are not uncommon, nor are they limited to electric models, analysts say.

“There are thousands of recalls every week, but when it’s an EV situation, people pay attention to it,” said Michelle Krebs, senior director of automotive relations at Cox Automotive.

When EV recalls or battery fires happen, they often get an inordinate amount of publicity, Krebs said, which could explain why some consumers are wary about the safety of EVs. A recent survey from Stanford University and Resources for the Future found that concerns about battery fires were the second most important factor influencing Americans’ uptake of electric cars (Energywire, Oct. 23).

However, other studies have shown that consumers are not particularly alarmed about battery fires. In a 2019 survey of 1,000 Americans from the consulting firm AlixPartners, for example, only 7% of respondents cited safety issues, including the risk of battery fires, as one of their top three concerns about EVs.

“The big three [concerns] are driving range, cost and charging concerns,” said Mark Wakefield, global co-leader of automotive and industrial practice at AlixPartners.

EV advocates note that electric models do not seem to catch fire more frequently than internal combustion vehicles. A 2017 study from the Department of Transportation found that lithium-ion batteries are projected to be “somewhat comparable to or perhaps slightly less” prone to fires or explosions compared with cars that run on gasoline.

“It’s getting a lot of attention because [EVs] are a new technology,” Krebs said. “I’m sure the automakers will focus a lot of attention on addressing this.”