Automakers are recalling electric vehicles due to vehicle fires, sudden losses of power, and failures to start. GM, for example, is spending $800 million to recall its Chevrolet Bolt following several reported battery fires. Automaker recalls within the last year by General Motors, Hyundai, and Ford involved 132,500 electric vehicles and cost a combined $2.2 billion. Nevertheless, automakers are embracing the new technology due to the expectations that President Joe Biden’s goal for half of new car sales to be electric by 2030 will come with billions of dollars in tax and other incentives.
The trouble spots for electric vehicles are software and batteries—two areas crucial to electric vehicles that are not historically areas of expertise for U.S. automakers. Cooling and controlling vehicle battery packs has proved to be a challenge. The high voltage in the batteries generates tremendous heat, and fires typically burn with great intensity and can take hours to put out. Tesla cars have caught on fire because of overheating in their battery systems.
The Chevrolet Bolt was first recalled due to several reported fires as a result of two “rare manufacturing defects” in the lithium-ion battery cells in the battery pack. GM issued a second recall of its 2017 to 2019 Chevrolet Bolt after at least two of the electric vehicles that were repaired for a previous problem caught on fire. Officials with GM and LG Energy Solutions, which supplies the vehicle’s battery cells from its factories in South Korea, identified a second “rare manufacturing defect” in the Bolt that increases the risk of fire. The $800 million recall covers about 69,000 of the cars globally, including nearly 51,000 in the United States.
More recently, GM recalled Bolts from the 2020 through 2022 model years and a few 2019 Bolts that were not covered under the previous recall. This latter recall covers 73,000 vehicles, of which 60,000 are in the United States. That results in all 141,000 Bolts that GM has produced—going back to the 2017 model—under recall. The later recall is expected to cost the company $1 billion on top of the $800 million it had allocated for the previous Bolt recalls. GM is planning to seek reimbursement from its battery supplier, South Korean LG Chem.
To support Biden’s plans, GM intends to spend $35 billion on electric and autonomous vehicles from 2020 to 2025, build four battery plants in the United States (two of which will be in Ohio and Tennessee), and end production of gasoline-powered cars and trucks by 2035. The company is expected to introduce 30 electric vehicle models over the next few years, including 20 in the United States. All models will use a new, modular battery design that is different than the battery packs used in the Bolt. GM expects the new battery system, called Ultium, to cost less and allow vehicles to travel farther.
The first GM model using the new battery system is a GMC Hummer luxury sport-utility vehicle that will soon go into production. It will be followed by an electric Cadillac Lyriq SUV. The Lyriq will start at just under $60,000 ranging up to $90,000, while the Hummer will range from $89,995 to $112,595. GM is also working on a battery-powered version of its Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck.
Other recalls or problems with batteries or software of new electric vehicles included:
- Porsche, which recalled the Taycan due to a software problem that caused the vehicle to completely lose power while driving.
- Ford Motor, which had a “small number” of early customers of its Mustang Mach-E crossover electric vehicle reporting that the 12-volt batteries in their vehicles would not charge, preventing the cars from operating. Ford diagnosed it as a software issue. In Europe, Ford recalled about 20,500 Kuga plug-in hybrid crossovers and suspended sales of the vehicles due to concerns that the battery packs in the vehicles could potentially overheat and cause a vehicle fire. It cost the automaker $400 million.
- Hyundai Motor expects to spend $900 million for a recall following fires in 15 of its Kona electric vehicles.
- BMW, Volvo and others also have recalled electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrid models, due to issues with battery systems.
While Tesla has avoided massive recalls of its electric vehicles due to battery issues, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation in October 2019 into Tesla’s high-voltage batteries. The probe was due to a petition alleging that Tesla rolled out one or more software updates to control and conceal a potential defect that could result in non-crash fires in affected battery packs that NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation received. A class-action complaint was also filed against Tesla, who agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle the lawsuit despite NHTSA’s investigation remaining open.
Another proposed class-action lawsuit alleges that Tesla knowingly overstated the capacity of the high-voltage batteries in its cars and used remote “battery health checks” and software updates to conceal battery degradation and deny owners battery replacements to which they were entitled under warranty. The lead plaintiff’s 2014 Tesla Model S lost more than half of its range over six years, dropping to the equivalent of a 144-mile range on a full charge from a 265-mile range when first bought. A similar complaint occurred in Norway in which more than 30 Tesla drivers indicated that a 2019 software update reduced their battery life, decreased the range and lengthened the time the cars took to charge.
Other Automaker Electric Vehicle Plans
Both Ford Motor and Volkswagen have budgeted amounts similar to GM for electric-vehicle development. Ford has introduced an electric SUV called the Mustang Mach-E and expects to add an electric version of its F-150 pickup truck next year. Volkswagen has started selling its electric SUV, the ID.4, and is ramping up production and starting to build the vehicle at its plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, vehicle fires are generally common. In 2018, there were 212,500 vehicle fires that caused 560 civilian deaths, 1,500 civilian injuries and $1.9 billion in direct property damage in the United States. Most of those fires did not involve electric vehicles, which only make up 2 percent to 3 percent of new vehicle sales in the United States annually. However, fires in electric vehicles burn more intensively than in gasoline vehicles. Firefighters had to use 40 times the amount of water normally needed to contain a fire of a gasoline-powered vehicle when a Tesla electric vehicle crashed. Electric vehicle automakers will need to contain battery fires and fix software errors relating to speed reduction and problems starting in order for Biden’s plans—to have 50 percent of new car sales be electric by 2030—to get off the ground.