The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued an alert pertaining to Chevrolet Bolt owners, as the vehicles’ LG Chem battery packs could have a propensity to catch fire. On Wednesday, the safety organization recommended that the cars be left outdoors (ideally a healthy distance from anything flammable) and never left unattended while charging.
This defeats one of the largest perks of owning an electric vehicle (at-home charging), as customers will be required to buy extra-long cables and monitor their car outdoors for hours as it takes on energy. Owning a horse would be less work.
Sadly, it’s not the first time we’ve seen reports of spontaneously combusting EVs. There was a stint where China was releasing weekly reports where electrics caught fire whilst charging and we’ve seen incidents in the West where owners lost their garage to charging or battery-related mishaps. While only some of these incorporated the Chevrolet Bolt, LG Chem’s batteries have been a reoccurring theme and encouraged a round of lawsuits — though the supplier typically faults the manufacturer’s installation and/or charging programs.
General Motors launched a recall on 2017-19 model year Bolts back in November but the NHTSA warning is new and follows the burning of one model owned by a member of the Vermont House of Representatives. Democrat Timothy Briglin chairs the state’s House Committee on Energy and Technology and was a major advocate for electric vehicles. Last week, Vermont State Police confirmed that his Chevy Bolt caught fire in the driveway. Damage was believed to have originated from the rear seating area where the battery is located, mimicking the other fires.
While EV fires haven’t been the norm, they’re happening at a pace that’s definitely undermining public trust. This is especially bad considering large swaths of the industry and most governments are hellbent on transitioning entirely over to alternative energy vehicles in the coming decade. Automakers and suppliers clearly need to do better because purchasing modern EVs still requires trading off some of the conveniences of internal combustion vehicles to get the benefits of at-home charging and quiet operation. Under normal circumstances, deciding between them involves some contemplation on what your driving needs actually entail. But owning a car that won’t catch fire is a prerequisite for most consumers and unlikely to be something they’ll be willing to compromise on. Even early adopters who just want the hottest, newest item won’t feel comfortable rolling the dice when the stakes are this high.
Owners of the Chevrolet Bolt should absolutely take the NHTSA’s warning to heart and leave the car outdoors until after this problem has been solved. We wouldn’t even judge you if you did the same with any other all-electric model that has been the subject of fire reports over the last couple of years, even if the manufacturer issued a software update that supposedly fixed the problem. Because that’s what happened to Representative Briglin, though his formal commitment to electrification remains steadfast.
“I’m very concerned that GM get out in front of this and get on top of the safety issues related to these three model years [2017-2019],” Briglin told Forbes in an interview. “I don’t think that there is any question that EVs are the cars of the future. They’re easier to drive, they’re less expensive to drive, they’re better for the climate, this [Bolt] battery issue is going to get figured out.”
Your author is less inclined to believe that EVs are automatically better for “the climate” (Briglin presumably meant environment), without additional context, or that they’re guaranteed to be less expensive to own. But they do offer a unique driving experience and some unique benefits that appeal to a particular type of customer. It should also be stated that isolated EV fires are bound to get more media attention than any other random automotive barbeque. Unfortunately, some of these electric models are seeing fire reports at a frequency that certainly seems to indicate there’s a safety issue worth addressing. The industry needs to deal with this, lest it run the risk of putting the public off electrification.
[Image: General Motors]