With General Motors earnings this week came another early stumble in the race to electrification. The automaker said it took an $800 million hit for battery warranty and replacement costs for the Chevrolet Bolt.
GM has been working on solutions while telling owners of the car not to park it inside and charge it overnight or put a full charge on the battery. The company thinks the defect is rare, Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra said on the earnings call, but recalled about 69,000 vehicles to ensure customer safety.
Let’s not pick on GM. Burning EV batteries has become an industrywide issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also has looked at fires in Tesla models, Hyundai’s Kona and Ioniq EVs, and Audi’s e-tron. Not only is NHTSA paying attention, but the public is watching closely as more EVs hit the market.
It’s not just EVs that catch on fire. Good ol’ gas burners go up in smoke all the time. The National Fire Protection Association put out a report in March of last year estimating U.S. fire departments responded to 212,500 vehicle fires in 2018, causing 560 deaths. The group’s data-collection systems don’t yet adequately capture the frequency of fires involving EVs, but since there were only a handful for sale in 2018 and volume was low, it’s safe to say most of these incidents involved vehicles with internal combustion engines.
EV fires have a handful of causes, says Sandy Munro, president of manufacturing consulting firm Munro and Associates. Battery packs can be pierced, and if water leaks in, a fire can start. Another reason could be if software designed to identify a bad cell fails to cut off power to the rest of the pack like it’s supposed to. More commonly, a manufacturing defect can lead to a short or spark that starts a bad chemical reaction.
GM says it’s close to finalizing a fix for the battery. It looks like the recent fires are due to a manufacturing defect because the problem is confined to cars with batteries made at supplier LG Chem’s plant in Ochang, South Korea, according to GM spokesman Dan Flores. The Bolt battery is not the same as the Ultium battery pack that will power the Hummer EV going on sale this year or the Cadillac Lyriq scheduled for production early next year.
The industry already is moving to head off these problems. A startup called Voltaiq Inc. analyzes battery performance data to identify thermal problems or bad cells early on. The company is working with two Detroit carmakers, CEO Tal Sholklapper told me, declining to name them. He said most major automakers are now digging through battery-performance data to identify problems faster.
The industry has no choice but to move quickly and decisively. More than 100 EV models are coming to market in the next five years. GM’s recall already hit its profits hard. Safety problems and reputational risk to individual carmakers and EVs is the next headache. With the Biden Administration pushing for half of all new vehicles sold to be capable of zero-emission driving by 2030, it’s all the more urgent.
Before You Go
Last month, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said things were getting better for automakers struggling with chip shortages. The comments may have been premature. This week, suppliers of those vital electronic components warned the problem is far from over and said the car industry’s rapid pivot to electric vehicles may further stretch their ability to catch up. Their customers share the cautious view. GM’s Barra called the supply situation “fluid,” and the company cautioned that constraints may continue to weigh on profitability. The carmaker has just 25 days of inventory in the U.S., about a third of its normal stock of cars and trucks.
August 6, 2021
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