Electric vehicle batteries are getting more scrutiny in the wake of high-profile fires.
GM has confirmed at least 12 fires in 2017-2019 model year Bolts. The fires happen when cars are parked, i.e., they are non-crash-related fires. While Tesla has not commented on recent fires, there have been several seemingly spontaneous fires: one home garage fire in San Ramon, Calif., another involving a brand new Model S Plaid in Haverford, PA., and one late last year in Frisco, Tex.
But is the scrutiny warranted?
“I think with any new technology…because they are EVs it’s inherently more interesting [to the public]. Meanwhile, we’re driving around with these massive gasoline tanks in our own cars,” Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds, told me in an interview.
“I don’t think ultimately we’ll find out that batteries are inherently more dangerous,” she added.
The National Fire Protection Association said this in 2020: “While hybrid and electric vehicles have become more common, existing data collection systems have not yet adequately captured the frequency of fires involving these specific vehicles.”
For the Bolt, GM cited manufacturing defects that center on “a torn anode tab and folded separator” that when “present in the same battery cell…increases the risk of fire.” GM ultimately recalled all Chevy Bolts due to fire risk, including the newest 2020-2022 Bolts that initially were not included in the recall.
This has caused panic among more than a few Bolt owners and leasees, as evidenced in online forums. Over 100,000 Bolts have been sold or leased to date in the U.S. GM batteries are supplied by LG Chem.
“It’s important for us all to remember that the Bolt recall isn’t a battery technology problem — this is a manufacturing quality issue,” said Scott Case, CEO of Recurrent, a Seattle-based startup that provides battery analysis for EV owners, in an email.
And with GM providing vehicle buybacks or battery replacements, it’s not as if GM is ignoring the problem, Case says.
“Long-term, a 2017 or 2018 Chevy Bolt that gets a brand new battery is an amazing deal,” he said.
Edmunds’ Caldwell agrees. “It does feel like [GM is] taking this very seriously. They’re not trying to just put a bandaid on it. They’re trying to actually fix this issue,” she said.
EV fires also tend to be very different from gas car fires, thus the heightened scrutiny.
A Tesla Model S fire in April required nearly 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish it. By comparison, a typical car fire involving a gas engine can be extinguished with about 300 gallons of water.
And all that water takes time. An EV fire can take hours to put out compared to a gas car fire that can be under control in minutes.
“Unlike gasoline, which can be drained from a vehicle’s tank, there are no surefire methods of removing energy from a car’s lithium-ion battery when the battery has been damaged in a crash,” according to the National Fire Protection Agency Journal.
“Because of this, energy remains trapped inside the battery and a process known as thermal runaway can occur, in which the battery essentially continuously overheats and over-pressurizes and is prone to fires, arc-flashing, off-gassing, and sometimes explosions.”
So, a Tesla fire or Chevy Bolt fire or a Hyundai Kona EV fire are going to get more attention than, let’s say, a Toyota Corolla catching fire despite the fact that there is no hard independent data that compares gas and electric car fires.
“There’s no comprehensive data source that we are aware of” that compares electric and gas car fires, said Jason K. Levine, Executive Director of the Washington DC-based Center for Auto Safety, in an email.
“Non-crash fires are always worth investigating no matter how the vehicle is powered,” Levine said. “The concern with battery electric vehicle fires is two-fold: how often are they happening and how prepared are our first responders to react?”
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