Bolt EV fires (or not): the continuing storrrry……

Two recent developments regarding the Bolt EV battery fires seem worth reporting here.

First, battery replacement seems to be going well. It certainly went perfectly for ours. I dropped the car off at our dealer (Airport Chevrolet in Medford, Oregon) at 8:00 AM on January 11 and drove home in the loaner that was waiting for me. At 4:00 PM that same day I got a call informing me that the work was done, so I got back in the loaner and drove back to the dealer. The Bolt had been washed and vacuumed, and its new battery had been fully charged; the Guess-O-Meter (range indicator) read 250 miles, an almost un-heard-of number for the original battery in mid-winter. That, and the paperwork giving my three-year-old car a full new-car warranty on its battery, were the only signs that any work had been done at all. The charge for everything, including use of the loaner, was zero. Not a bad reward for simply giving up access to my Bolt for eight hours when I wouldn’t have been using it anyway (the loaner just sat in our driveway all day).

Second, a recently-released insurance-industry study has now provided undeniable proof of what I have maintained all along: even with their old batteries, Bolts (and other EVs) are far, far less likely to catch fire than your average gasoline-powered chariot. The website collected all the vehicular fire data they could find from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). Here’s the graphic they published to summarize what they found:

They also visited to find out how many fire-related vehicle recalls had been reported to the government in 2020. Here is that data, broken down again by vehicle type:

Once more, by far the greatest majority of fire-related vehicle recalls were for gasoline-powered cars, both in numbers of brands and in total numbers of units.

Viewed through the lens of these figures, all the hype over the Bolt fires seems kind of silly. It turns out that Bolt owners have been safer than gasoline-car owners all along. EVs – including Bolts – catch fire at less than two percent of the rate that ICE (internal combustion engine) cars do. For this, GM asked owners to park outside after charging? For this, Bolts were banned from parking garages and employees’ parking lots? The recall itself seems reasonable enough to me (after all, there was an unnecessary risk of fire, no matter how small); the attention paid to it doesn’t. The press jumped on the issue because EVs are still a new technology, and everything about them is newsworthy, especially if the news can be sensationalized. But GM shouldn’t have followed suit. The auto company’s best approach would have been to publicize the same figures that found – they’re readily available, and always have been. Instead, GM – in what they themselves described as “an excess of caution” – chose to emphasize how careful they were being with consumers’ safety. It probably seemed like a good idea, but it backfired. The message consumers got wasn’t “we care about you,” but “Bolts are likely to catch fire.” The gambit failed, and we are likely to pay for it by much slower adoption of electric vehicles over the next few years.

Which would be a shame. Because the other thing I found out from my own experience with the recall was this: EVs run rings around gasoline vehicles by just about any measure you can apply to them. The car that Airport lent me was a brand-new Buick Encore – a small luxury SUV – sporting just about every bell and whistle known to humankind. It had all of 1500 miles on the clock, and everything about it was fresh as a daisy. But it was also the first ICE I had driven in over three years, and it felt unbelievably primitive. The sluggish response to the accelerator – the noticeable shifts in RPM as the automatic transmission climbed through its gears – the lack of braking response when backing off the pedal – all of these things reminded me during pretty much every second of each of my two drives that internal-combustion engines are really unsuited to powering vehicles. Pistons, crankshafts, clutches, and transmissions are all kludges required to control an undirected explosion and make it turn something. EVs don’t need them – electric motors are turning already. My Bolt is a basic model, far down the scale of luxury, but after just a few minutes behind the Buick’s wheel, I could hardly wait to get back behind my own.

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