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.

On Fires, Electric Cars, and General Motors

(Note: This post has now been updated twice. See the notes at the end.)

Bolts have been catching fire. In their response to these fires, General Motors has taken an incremental approach that is seriously damaging their reputation and the reputation of electric cars in general.

To recap what you probably have already learned from other sources: the battery packs in a small number of Chevrolet Bolts – GM’s iconic small electric crossover, and the car this website and blog are based on – have caught fire, totaling the cars and damaging or destroying their owners’ garages. GM has dealt with this through a series of recalls. The first of these recalls, widely advertised as “temporary,” installed a simple software patch that prevented the cars’ batteries from charging to more than 90% full while the problem of the fires was being researched. The second, five months later, was more complex: dealers’ service departments tested the car’s batteries for cells that exhibited what GM’s engineers thought was the flaw that caused the fires, replaced any battery modules where the defect was found, and installed new battery-management software that watched for the flaw and warned owners if and when it developed. This was announced as a “permanent” fix.

It wasn’t. Fires continued to be reported, including at least two in Bolts on which the “permanent” fix had been performed.

Last week, GM announced a third recall. Armed with new theories about what has caused the fires, plus statistical information on the dates of manufacture of the burning vehicles, they plan to check certain ranges of VIN numbers, aggressively retest the batteries, and replace every module that shows a hint of the problem, up to and including entire battery packs, if necessary. This is a laudable upscaling of their response.

It isn’t adequate.

Before getting into the reasons for that, it seems necessary to dispel a few misconceptions about the fires. The first has to do with their frequency. As of the last report of which I’m aware that gives actual numbers rather than estimates (Green Car Reports, 7/23/2021), nine Bolt battery packs have caught fire. Almost 100,000 Bolts have been sold in the United States since the car was introduced in late 2016. Even if we limit our scope to the early run of the 2019 models, when the overwhelming majority of the cars involved in the fires were manufactured and sold – the last four months of 2018 and the first four months of 2019 – we are dealing with a maximum of nine fires out of more than 13,000 vehicles. That is not exactly a high-risk percentage.

The second misconception is about who is to blame. Although GM is correct to recall the cars – and Chevrolet technicians will be doing the work – the auto company did not manufacture the faulty batteries. Like almost all cars today, Bolts are a conglomeration of parts built by various subcontractors in various parts of the world. The batteries were built by the giant South Korean chemical and electronics firm LG Chem, and all of the defective units discovered so far have come from a single LG plant, in Ochang, South Korea. LG has partnered with GM in the various recalls, but so far they have adroitly managed to sidestep public responsibility. This should change. GM should no longer have to take a fall for another company’s shoddy workmanship.

The third misconception is that the fires have been random. Actually, almost all of them have taken place under the same circumstances: they involve batteries that have been discharged nearly to zero and then taken to completely full in a single charge. This is normal refueling behavior for drivers who have learned their habits in gasoline-powered vehicles, but it’s wrong for lithium-ion batteries, which do best on many shallow discharges rather than on a few deep ones – meaning that they should be recharged at every opportunity instead of only when the car’s range drops so low that a charge is necessary to make it to the next charging station. Batteries also heat up while being charged, behavior that gets more extreme during the last few percent of a full charge. This last characteristic is why GM’s original quick fix was to install software that cut off the Bolt’s charging at 90 percent, and it is also why the company currently advises owners to use the car’s native charge-limiting settings to reinstate that 90 percent limit while waiting for the most recent recall to be performed (they also suggest that the available range shouldn’t be allowed to drop below 70 miles, to avoid the deep discharges that seem to be a large part of the problem).

So: if the fires are extremely rare; if the risk can be minimized even futher by proper battery care; and if it isn’t GM’s fault anyway, why do I consider the current recall – which is solely to detect and replace battery modules exhibiting the fault that GM and LG engineers now believe to be the real cause of the fires – seriously inadequate?

Full disclosure, here: my own Bolt is a 2019 with a battery from that suspect South Korean plant, and with manufacture and sales dates (August and December, 2018) that put it right in among the cars that have been most likely to burn, so these things are likely to influence my state of mind. But that is precisely the point. A recall like this is certainly about safety – no one wants to see more Bolts catch fire – but it is even more about state of mind. The actual risk that any given Bolt will catch fire is vanishingly small; the risk that it will catch fire during the next 24 hours is even smaller. As an environmental writer, and the son of a scientist, I understand the minute nature of these risks quite thoroughly – intellectually. I still go to bed each night with a niggling fear that I will be awakened by a smoke alarm, and I now shy away from taking trips that will run the battery gauge below five bars (out of twenty) before the next charge begins.

The currently announced recall isn’t going to change that. Testing for faulty modules and replacing them might have seemed adequate last time, but that last time turned out to be a failure. It did not breed confidence that testing and replacing individual modules will do the job now. To regain consumer confidence in the product, nothing less than full replacement of every questionable battery pack will do. This is especially true of the early 2019 models that have experienced the great majority of the fires, but it is actually necessary for every first-generation Bolt battery built in the Ochang plant. All of them are now suspect. Whether or not that suspicion is deserved is beside the point: Bolts – and, by extension, electric cars in general – will remain under a cloud of doubt until and unless full replacement is done.

GM needs a recall designed by politically savvy engineers. It has given us one designed by accountants and lawyers. It apparently aims, not to protect Bolt owners, but to spend the least money possible to gain the company the greatest possible protection from lawsuits. On that last point, GM’s own language in the recall notice is instructive:

Out of an abundance of caution, you should continue to park your vehicle outside immediately after charging and do not leave your vehicle charging overnight.

This is in direct contradiction to the advice given in the owner’s manual:

It is recommended that the vehicle be plugged in when temperatures are below 0°C (32°F) and above 32°C (90°F) to maximize high voltage battery life.

To paraphrase that last statement: leaving the car plugged in will allow its battery-management tools to do a better job. If that is true, then unplugging it and moving it outside will cause those tools to do a worse job, which will increase the risk that the battery will catch fire. Only a corporate lawyer would advise making the risk of a car fire greater in order to reduce the liability risks to his client should the car fire cause its owner’s house to catch fire as well.

I am continually appalled at the damage fossil-fuel use does to the environment, up to and including climate change. I also love electric cars for themselves, and I particularly love the Bolt. It would be a shame if excess financial and legal caution on the part of General Motors led to fewer Bolts, fewer electric cars in general, and an increased likelihood of runaway damage to the planet.

Update on August 20 – General Motors has just announced that all battery modules in all Bolts will now be replaced (including those in the new extended version known as the EUV). They are “aggressively seeking” compensation from LG for the costs they will be incurring. The new modules will be the current version, so those of us driving older models will see an 8% improvement in range, as well as receiving an updated warranty that will cover the new battery modules for 8 years or 100,000 miles. I’m happy to see GM stepping up to the plate on this one.

Update on September 29 – General Motors has now announced that production of Bolt batteries has resumed, and that replacement of the existing battery packs under the recall will begin by mid-October. LG has changed both its manufacturing processes and its quality-control protocols, and both the battery company and GM are assuring customers that this time, they have it right. As further insurance (and assurance), the auto company will be installing new diagnostic software in all Bolts, which will provide better monitoring for abnormalities in the performance of the batteries. Priority will be given to the owners of Bolts built during “certain timeframes” where battery problems appear to have been clustered: if I understand this correctly, it means that the first cars to undergo battery replacement will be those built in October and November of 2018. Ours was built in August of 2018, so it won’t be among the first. The second wave, though is likely to be the rest of the 2019s, so we can probably expect replacement before the first of the year. I’m looking forward to the 8% longer range – in our car, that should mean about 20 extra miles.

The extra assurance will also be nice, although I’ve never been particularly concerned that my car will catch fire. The odds are overwhelmingly against it, despite the fear-mongering that has taken place. There have been reports of parking garages who won’t allow Bolts inside, and of employers who have told Bolt owners that they can no longer charge at work. That’s on top of the fears of owners themselves, far too many of whom have been caught up in the hype. The Bolt owners’ Facebook page has been full of people angry that they have to drive “firebombs” and worried about how strictly they have to follow GM’s recommendations to avoid burning their houses down. A few are announcing bitterly that they will never buy an electric car again. This despite the fact that ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles still catch fire at a far higher rate than EVs. Lost in the hype over the Bolts, for instance, is the fact that BMW just recalled 185,000 cars (nearly twice as many as are affected by the Bolt recall) to fix a problem that – you guessed it – might cause them to catch fire while parked.

So for those people, I’ve done a little further math. As of September 20, GM had confirmed fires in 12 Bolts. That is 0.012 per cent – 12 thousandths of one percent – of all Bolts on the road. For comparison, using figures provided by the insurance industry and by the federal government, I’ve computed the likelihood of house fires caused by cooking accidents. It’s roughly 0.2 per cent – nearly a full order of magnitude larger. You have a far greater chance of catching your house on fire while cooking dinner than you have while charging a Bolt in your garage and leaving it plugged in after charging.

I think I’ll stay relaxed.

The Odd Day

It started as a simple trip to a good wildflower hike we know of along the lower Rogue River. It ended somewhere else entirely, and even the somewhere-else required a somewhere-else to make it succeed properly. But the day ended well, and I have the pictures to prove it. Keep reading.

The whole thing was a result of COVID-19, really. This would normally be the time of year for the Table Rocks, southern Oregon’s premiere spring wildflower hike: but the BLM and The Nature Conservancy, which jointly manage the two big mesas, have closed the trails to enforce social distancing during the ongoing pandemic – and even if they hadn’t, at our age (both of us are 77), we’d avoid the place right now like the pl … no, because of the plague. So we are constantly looking for trails that no one else is likely to be hiking. One of these, I thought, just might be the Umpqua Joe Trail, which starts across the road from Josephine County’s Indian Mary Park, just beyond Hellgate on the Rogue River, and climbs to wildflowers and views. We’d driven past the trailhead three times this spring and had not seen any cars there. It seemed – innocently, I now know – like a good choice.

Umpqua Joe is a short trail – about a mile and a half, one way – and it was 32°F outside the house when we woke up, so we waited until about 11:30 AM to leave the house. The hour’s drive to the trailhead was uneventful – right up to the time we pulled into the parking lot and saw the sign announcing that the trail was closed for repairs due to the damage caused by the Klondike Fire in 2018. No wonder we hadn’t seen any cars parked there.

Well, never mind: I’d planned an alternative, just in case. Right across the river from Indian Mary there is a large rock-and-scree bluff, and the bluff has a trail up it. No cars parked there, either. But when we crossed the bridge and took the gravel side road to the bottom of the bluff, we were met by a wire fence and another “closed trail” sign, this one evidently because the trail – constructed only by feet and bicycle tires, even though it has a nice trailhead kiosk – was now considered too hazardous to use. There are a couple of paths to the river there, also, but there were already people down them; we could see their car in the trees further down the road. Sigh.

Back up-river a short way, to the old side road that can be walked to the river just below Hellgate. There were people down that road, too.

At least the Hellgate Overlook parking lot was empty. We parked there and walked the gravel path along the roadway. It runs about a quarter of a mile and offers some nice views of the gorge and a few flowers, but with traffic whizzing by just a few feet away, it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. However, I’d also prepared a third alternative. Sexton Mountain, north of Grants Pass, is well-known to travelers on Interstate 5 – the freeway runs over its western shoulder, through a deep road cut, and there are signs beside the road identifying the road cut as “Sexton Mt. Pass.” What is not so well known is that there is also a road over the EAST shoulder of Sexton Mountain.

It is a narrow gravel road badly in need of repair, it leaves from a paved Josephine County back road called “Jumpoff Joe” that is itself very little traveled. It probably sees only a few cars each week – if that. Off that road, right at the pass over the shoulder, there is an even smaller road, an old BLM logging road, gated and going back to earth. We’d walked that old road before, and we knew it to be a great spot for spring wildflowers. So I pointed the Bolt’s nose in that direction.

Henderson’s fawn lily

The quickest way from Hellgate to Hugo – where the Jumpoff Joe Road leaves the freeway – is via the Pleasant Valley Road from Merlin. Unfortunately, I hadn’t researched that, so we took what was labeled the “Hugo Road” instead. I have to say it was a pleasant drive, over a well-maintained, paved, two-lane road through a sunny, woodsy valley, but it takes you quite a ways north before curving around and bringing you back to the freeway. Another oddity. The Jumpoff Joe Road is similarly pleasant, but the Jack Creek Road – which is the one which leads to the back side of Sexton Mountain – is poorly marked, and we had driven about a mile past it before my wife convinced me that I’d missed the junction and I turned us around. The Jack Creek Road is gravel, and steep, and erosion is taking its toll: in several places I had to creep the Bolt over, around, or through dips and potholes and the occasional partial gully. This, of course, is one of the things that keeps the area we were headed for isolated, and I was congratulating myself and announcing loudly to Melody that we should definitely be alone up here when we pulled up to the saddle and spotted a parked SUV. Damn.

Fortunately, the gated logging road – which I was pretty sure the people in the SUV had taken – wasn’t our only choice. The Jack Creek Road continues north (as the Shanks Creek Road) all the way back to the freeway; there is a BLM road that heads east from the saddle, through private property; and a high-voltage powerline also passes through, with a corresponding cleared area and service track. After an abortive start walking up the east road – during which we encountered very few flowers or views, but plenty of “no trespassing” signs (and also the signs’ owner, in a large black SUV: he was pleasant enough to us, at proper social distance, since we were on the road and not on his land directly) – we opted for the powerline. The service road was rough, with rocky ruts and occasional large spring-filled puddles, but it kept a gentle slope for the first third of a mile or so before plunging straight down the mountainside. That was the point at which we turned around. There was a great deal of trash littering the beginning of the service road, but it thinned out after 100 yards or so. And there were flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. I had a new telephoto lens to try out. Enjoy the pictures.

Henderson’s shooting star
Hall’s violet
Western buttercup
Hound’s tongue
Spring Gold
King Mountain from Sexton Mountain (telephoto)