General Motors Co. is investing billions into its electrification transition as it simultaneously deals with a repeat electric vehicle recall that's likely to come with hefty costs and the risk of alienating consumers from EVs.
For the second time in less than a year, GM recalled more than 68,000 Chevrolet Bolt EVs globally from model years 2017 through 2019 for a potential battery fire risk. The latest recall on Friday came after a Bolt in Vermont repaired under the previous recall remedy still caught fire, upping the number of GM-confirmed Bolt battery fires to nine. There have been no fatalities, the automaker said, but in two instances, there were smoke inhalation injuries.
A second recall for GM's first 21st century EV is a bad look for the Detroit automaker, experts say, as it embarks on a multi-billion dollar journey to morph from a century-old automaker known for its truck power to a green tech-focused EV company. It complicates efforts to persuade consumers to accept the unknowns of a new technology that — like internal combustion engines — has some issues.
"It's not like recalls can't happen more than once for the same issue," said Karl Brauer, executive analyst for iseecars.com, a vehicle search site. "But every time that happens, as a consumer, you know your impression starts to be like: 'OK, this is like an inherent problem with whatever the vehicle is or whatever the recall is related to ... it's not like this one-off thing.'"
Drivers of the affected Bolts will again have to take their vehicles to the dealership for a fix, but GM and battery partner LG Energy Solution are still working to determine the exact repair process.
The companies say they now know "the simultaneous presence of two rare manufacturing defects in the same battery cell" is the root cause of the fires. They will have the Bolt battery modules reviewed for these defects and replace them.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the Bolt fires in October 2020 "and continues to evaluate the recall remedies and reported incidents, including fires," the agency said.
It's important to keep the number of fires and recalled vehicles in perspective, Brauer said. When GM first recalled the Bolt in November 2020, it had confirmed five fires. Now, it has confirmed four more.
"If you are an Elon Musk, you would be saying: 'I'll take that rate of fire damage over the rate of fire issues with internal combustion engines any day,'" Brauer said. But even if there are more internal combustion engine fires, the Bolt fires involve vehicles sitting in driveways and suddenly catching fire.
"I don't know how many times that's happened to an internal combustion vehicle ... that it's been stationary, sitting in the garage, and starts to catch on fire," Brauer said. "That's where it gets a little tricky when the numbers are small, but they still tie directly to the nature of an EV, which is batteries getting hot and catching on fire."
GM spokesman Dan Flores said the automaker was "not aware that the issue was the simultaneous presence of two rare defects in the same battery cell" when it issued the recall in November, or in April when it issued a recall remedy to install software that could diagnose a potential battery problem.
The issue means that out of caution, drivers of the affected Bolts, which include more than 50,900 in the U.S., cannot: A) park the Bolts indoors, B) charge beyond a 90% level or C) let the battery charge level go below about 70 miles of range.
The Bolts affected include all of those manufactured in the 2017 and 2018 model years and a portion of the 2019 model year.
"We know the first recall and now this one is a huge inconvenience for our customers," Flores said in a statement. "But we believe if they follow our guidance on what they should do ... in the interim until the final repair is completed that should mitigate any battery safety risk. They can continue to drive their vehicles."
A Vermont state representative whose blue 2019 Bolt caught fire in his driveway hasn't been turned away from EVs by his experience.
Rep. Tim Briglin of Thetford Center, Vermont, had his Bolt repaired with the suggested recall fix June 9. He came home June 30 with a battery that only had about 25 miles of range left and plugged it in to charge. The next morning, there was a loud hissing sound in his driveway and smoke coming out of the back of the car.
"I unplugged the car and called the fire department ... it was right when they drove in, the back of the car burst into flames," he said in an interview with The Detroit News.
Briglin got his Bolt because EVs are "cheaper to operate ... cheaper to own over the long-term," and the electric Chevy was offered at a price point he could afford with range of more than 200 miles. He's getting a replacement Bolt.
"There's no question in my mind that we're moving towards electric vehicles, and I think that process is going to accelerate," he said. "Once the cost comes down ... a little bit more, I think you're gonna see the acceleration and adoption. I am very optimistic that we're going to go quickly in this direction."
While GM works with LG to develop a battery repair procedure, it's also looking at how to ramp up production of the battery hardware needed for potential repairs.
For displeased customers, including those with no defect battery modules, GM will review each case and request individually. GM believes the battery defects are rare and anticipates only a "small percentage" of the more than 68,000 recalled to have them, Flores said.
The automaker did not specify how much the recall will cost, but it's possible some customers may not want the vehicle at all and ask GM to buy it back or ask for a new replacement battery even if no defect is found. That could get costly.
"If they can't figure out a way to confirm that a battery pack does or doesn't have this defect, and they do have to replace all 69,000 of these batteries, that's going to be really expensive and take a long time," Brauer said. "That's going to be kind of a next evolution and it will have an impact on the perception."
This is not the first time that consumers have heard about battery fires. Tesla, Hyundai and others have also had them.
"In general, any time you've got something like battery fires ... regardless of what manufacturer it is, it's never a good look for EVs," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights. "GM is about to roll out a whole fleet of electric vehicles; they probably should have done a better job in terms of how they handled this particular situation."
As far as the Bolt battery fires affecting consumer acceptance, Abuelsamid says: "People have remarkably short memories about this ... this is probably going to be a short-term story. I don't think that a year from now most people will even remember it."
But with EV sales at about 2% of all sales in the U.S. market, automakers still have a ways to go on consumer acceptance for non-EV enthusiasts.
"We're still in that kind of assessment period for the average consumer on whether or not they want to buy an EV," Brauer said. "This does not help."©2021 www.detroitnews.com. Visit at detroitnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.