Burnt remains of the latest Chevy Bolt Fire
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Another Chevy Bolt fire occurred on the morning of July 1 in Vermont. Similar to the previous one from less than two months ago, this car spontaneously caught fire the morning after charging and while still plugged in. Unlike the previous one however, this one had the final software update that claimed to prevent fires. Join us for an exclusive and in-depth investigation into this, and the history of the Bolt fires.

This follows seven fires in less than four months that prompted a massive recall. Not knowing what the problem was, GM first limited the charge level to “90%” (95% actually). Facing similar problems, Hyundai ultimately decided to replace all their LG batteries. However, GM took a different route. After a half a year GM released a “final” software fix to the 2019 Bolts, and a month later the 2017-2018s. They said they were confident this would prevent fires.

LG has had a rough year

LG Energy Solutions, the company that makes the battery for the Bolt and Kona EV, has not had a good year. First, they agreed to replace the 82,000 batteries sold to Hyundai for the Kona EV, Ioniq, and Elec City buses. Although the initial rumors were from a faulty battery separator, Hyundai later said that the problem was badly folded tabs. GM emphatically pointed out that they use a different separator, and a different factory. Thus neither of those problems should apply to the Bolt fires.

Porsche recently initiated a recall on a loss of power in its Taycan LG batteries, and Ford also moved from LG in its Mustang Mach-E to SK in its Ford F-150 Lightning.

In December LG announced a US recall for some of their home battery systems. Again in March for Australia. Finally, in May, they announced a worldwide free replacement program for any units made between April 2017 and September 2018. Now there’s a class action lawsuit against LG launched a bit more than a month ago, alleging a systematic battery problem. Another class action lawsuit has been filed against Chevrolet for the same reason.

After all this, Hyundai is switching to SK Innovation batteries for the Ioniq 5. This perhaps played into LG’s decision to settle their lawsuit against SK for $1.8 billion USD.

Their problems aren’t over either. Another Hyundai Kona EV caught fire just two weeks ago. It’s unclear if it had had its battery replaced; the process is expected to take more than a year due to supply constraints.

GM has not responded to comments about these most recent two Bolt fires. But that’s three fires of cars with LG batteries within the past two months.

Now, another Bolt fire

Electrek talked with this Bolt owner, Tim Briglin, who’s a house representative for the state of Vermont. He is also the chair of the Vermont House Committee on Energy and Technology. An environmentalist, he is a big supporter of the move to clean energy and emissions-free transportation.

Briglin bought his 2019 Bolt in November of 2018. Up until now, he has “absolutely loved” his Bolt. There have been no problems, and no need for service. Although he did receive the initial recall notice, he did not have it applied. Since all it did was limit the charge level, he set the charge limit to ~80% himself. Briglin had the final recall applied on June 9 with only 38,264 miles on the odometer. His car was still fairly new, still under 40K at the time of the fire. After the update, he resumed charging to full.

Briglin drove the car home around 7 p.m. on Wednesday June 30 and parked in his driveway. About an hour later, plugged it in with about 10% charge remaining. The dash said that charging would complete around 4 a.m. Around 6:30 a.m, Briglin was awake in his living room. He briefly heard what could only be described as a “very loud sucking noise.” Going outside, he could see smoke billowing out from the rear of his Bolt. The alarm started to go off; he ran over to unplug the car, and called 911. Within 10 minutes the fire department was there, and just as they were getting set up, the back of his Bolt burst into flames.

Briglin didn’t always run the battery low before recharging, but said that “at least 50% of charges” he plugged in below 20%. This is a similar pattern to the last fire on May 1 and something that seems to trigger the runaway thermal events.

The volunteer fire department was “outstanding”

The fire department was absolutely outstanding. They are volunteers, and knew exactly what to do to minimize damage.

Briglin praising the actions of the Royalton Barracks – Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit

Immediately putting multiple hoses to the back seat, they minimized damage. They kept flooding the back of the car for a half an hour. They used a high-tech heat-sensing camera to see how hot the battery was. Only once it dropped below a certain threshold did they reduce the water flow, but kept dousing the car for a while after that.

Thanks to the accurate and rapid response of the fire department, Briglin says that property damage is cursory, mainly just soot covering the house. When asked if there was anything else that could possibly have caused or contributed to the fire, Briglin emphatically answered “absolutely not.”

Briglin is worried for his constituents

The critical thing: He had the new software from the recall. This fire should not have happened.

An elected official in a small town, Briglin personally knows a lot of his constituents, and has advocated and supported electric vehicles for years.

My primary concern is for the safety of my constituents. I have dozens of them who drive Bolts, and I’ve probably heard from more than a dozen of them who are concerned. I’m not sure what to tell them, I’m worried for their safety.

GM is unfortunately not sharing any details, and only giving vague promises that software can fix the problem. With this latest fire, all owners have a right to be concerned for their safety.

GM is quiet on the cause

Electrek contacted GM about this latest Bolt fire. A spokesperson for the automaker acknowledged the incident and said that it is under investigation.

GM is aware of the incident and an investigator is in the process of learning more about the specific situation of the vehicle.

Although directly asked, the automaker didn’t comment on the fact that the vehicle had previously received the final software “fix” to prevent fires.

What does the new software do?

The new software is supposed to monitor the cells for voltage variations much more closely and often than before. The idea is to proactively look for the conditions or indications that could lead to a fire. This way they can either avoid them, or get the battery replaced before a fire occurs.

The new software also monitors the battery after the charge completes to look for abnormalities. Since all of the known fires occurred shortly after charging, this makes sense. As a part of this, if the car detects a “thermal runaway” event (aka impending fire), it will blare the horn and flash the lights. At least you can get some notice, as if the car is parked inside, minutes matter.

Since the alarm went off, it’s possible that the car detected the fire. But the question remains: Why did it not prevent this Bolt fire? Is the software update only going to blare the horn and not actually prevent fires?

Defective batteries sometimes go unnoticed

Not being able to detect conditions that could lead to fire doesn’t appear to be something new. The existing software doesn’t seem to notice when there’s a clear cell problem in the battery.

A 2020 Bolt owner this week was wondering why his range was so abnormally low. He should have more than 416km (259mi). He only has 291km. After we investigated, we can prove that there is a defective cell in the battery. Yet there are no warnings in the car, no check engine light, no alerts sent. His range has been low for at least three months, yet his OnStar monthly emails also state that there’s no problem with the battery. As a result, his dealership was almost unwilling to even check his battery, stating that because the check engine light was not on, there couldn’t be a problem. He’s not alone.

In the Facebook group we occasionally get owners complaining of low range. Often dealers are unwilling to help, or just dismiss it as normal. I have personally helped three people with no warnings figure out that they have a defective cell in their battery. There have been more who have figured it out on their own.

GM has already admitted there are defective batteries

GM’s experts concluded a “rare manufacturing defect in certain battery modules in vehicles from these production years” led to the fires, GM spokesman Dan Flores said in a statement to The Detroit News. That defect could cause “a heat source or a short in a cell, which could propagate into a fire.”

To fix the issue, the automaker created tools for “dealers to diagnose battery issues as well as advanced onboard diagnostic software that, among other things, has the ability to detect potential issues related to changes in battery module performance before they become potential problems during vehicle operation and charging,” Flores said. 

Detroit News Story – April 29, 2021

Clearly their “advanced onboard diagnostic software” is unable to reliably detect the problems that can lead to a fire. If GM has trouble reliably detecting when there is clearly a defective battery, like the 2020 Bolt above, how much can we trust the software will be able to prevent the conditions that lead to a fire in the first place?

This is at least the 10th fire

We thought there were only six. In late April, GM provided a statement for the final recall software update:

Since we announced the recall, there have been no additional fires in vehicles that completed the interim remedy. GM has verified eight battery-related Bolt EV fires. One event led to complaints of smoke inhalation. We are in the process of investigating one additional reported fire but have not yet verified that the incident is battery related. We have shared information on all complaints and are cooperating with NHTSA.

GM statement for the final Bolt fire software update (emphasis ours)

Since that one additional fire mentioned, plus the May and now July fires are not included in that, it would mean there have been at least 10. We have compiled a list of 11 fires that appear to be battery related, including 8 filed with the NHTSA and 2 international fires. Seven of the fires are from the 2019 Model Year – with only 14,371 produced with Korean manufactured batteries. That’s 49 fires per 100,000. GM released the 2019 software a month before the 2017-2018s. Perhaps this is why.

Electrek‘s take

Putting all these things together, this paints a bleak picture.

  • That makes that 2019 Bolt model more likely to catch fire than a 2019 gas vehicle when parked at home.
  • That previous fire from May? The only contact the previous fire victim (Sharath) had from GM after the initial call (once Electrek provided GM with his contact info) was a month after the fire when they did an inspection and took the car. The owner is living in a rental home paid for by their insurance. GM has not offered any help or communication.
  • Many people were skeptical that software could prevent another fire. If there is actually a physical problem with the batteries, their advanced software appears unable to reliably prevent a fire. It doesn’t even seem to always be able to catch defective batteries.
  • While GM did make many owners happy with either buy-backs or MSRP swaps, what’s very frustrating is how inconsistent they were. If you were lucky enough to be in a state with strong lemon laws, it looks like hundreds of owners were able to get either money in their pocket, or swapped into a new Bolt. Everyone else? They mostly rejected.
  • GM has not offered Sharath a replacement vehicle. They’re giving buybacks and MSRP swaps to hundreds of owners due to the risk of fire, but have not offered a replacement vehicle to those with an actual fire.
  • Bolt owners are the early adopters, supporting GM on their road to an all-electric future. Yet they have vehicles that they are afraid will catch fire. No information has been provided other than a vague indication that software can fix the problem. No compensation offered, or credit for what has happened.
  • GM has admitted there’s a manufacturing defect. Their software doesn’t look like it can reliably prevent a fire. At this point, it is clear that it’s just a matter of when, not if, another fire will occur. Luckily this one had no injuries, but what if the next one has kids sleeping next to the garage?

LG is reportedly covering 70% of the cost of the Hyundai recall. If GM struck the same deal with LG, it would only cost GM around $228 million. This may sound like a lot, but they have $140 billion a year in revenue and $8 billion in profit. That’s just 3% of their annual profit. They can afford it.

It’s time for GM to be open and transparent about the problem. It’s time for them to pressure LG and make a deal. Commit 3% of their annual profit to replace all at-risk batteries. Give any owner who wants a buy-back or MSRP swap the option to do that. Replace the vehicles that caught fire free of charge. That would be the right thing to do. And why not take action before they get sued for inaction?

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