On Fires, Electric Cars, and General Motors

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.

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
Saxifrage
Hound’s tongue
Spring Gold
King Mountain from Sexton Mountain (telephoto)

Fire, Falls, and Flowers: the Taylor Creek Trail

Oregon is under shelter-in-place orders in an attempt to control COVID-19, but – although most activities have been curtailed – hiking is specifically allowed as long as social distancing is maintained. So Melody and I have been drawing on our large repertory of little-known Southern Oregon trails. One of these is the Taylor Creek trail in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains west of Grants Pass. There are no great scenic panoramas here, but the trail has just about everything else: waterfalls, wildflowers, rock outcrops, and several different forest types, through a wide range of lush to dry. And although cars have occasionally passed us when we have been parked beside the road on each of our several trips up there, we have yet to encounter anyone else on the trail itself.

To get to Taylor Creek, you leave the freeway at the small town of Merlin and head west along the Galice Road, the popular highway to the Grave Creek trailhead and boat launch at the eastern end of the Rogue River Canyon. Immediately after you pass Morrison’s Lodge – roughly 12 miles in – you’ll see a road on the left, with a brown sign on the right pointing to “Briggs Valley.” That’s the Taylor Creek Road; Briggs Valley is beyond, over Lone Tree Pass at the creek’s head.

The road is paved, but it’s only about a lane and a half wide, so oncoming traffic must be passed with care. It climbs quickly up the mountainside, with glimpses across Taylor Creek’s valley to the tall waterfall on Schoolmarm Creek (no place to park for a photograph, dammit). In a little over two miles, you’ll see a small parking lot on the left. Pull in. A short trail here leads to the Taylor Gorge Overlook, a stone-and-concrete platform perched on the lip of the narrow, deep gorge through which Taylor Creek leaves its valley. It’s wild, and rugged, and the only certifiably spectacular scenery you’ll see on this trip. Enjoy.

Beyond the overlook, the road levels out, winding along the side of the valley high above the creek. Trees line your course; rock outcrops hold wildflowers. Taylor Creek’s forest was burned over in the 2018 Klondike Fire – second largest in Oregon history – but the burn was spotty, and most of the overstory here in the lower end of the valley remains intact. After roughly half a mile, a sign points to the Taylor Creek Trailhead, on the left. We choose to pass this one; it’s a long, steep, mostly boring way down to the creek. In another quarter-mile, an unmarked parking area provides a second trail access point, through an abandoned homestead meadow called English Flat. We think of stopping here – we once had a gorgeous (though chilly!) morning in a hoarfrost fog in that meadow – but another vehicle is already present, so we pass that, too. Social distancing. The best, we know, is yet to come.

A bit beyond English Flat the road and the creek finally converge, and the quiet, intimate beauty of this out-of-the-way valley begins to show itself. The broad, limpid creek – one of the few places I know of where that overworked word actually fits – alternates between tumbling over rocks and flowing gently among alders. A small side-stream waterfall tumbles down a roadside cliff. A riot of spring gold (Crocidium multicaule, a small member of the sunflower family) spills over just about everything.

After a mile or so of this, Burned Timber Creek enters through a narrow gorge on the far bank; and shortly after that a gravel side road branches left, crossing the main creek on a narrow concrete bridge. The Taylor Creek Trail intersects that road a few feet beyond the bridge. We park in the large parking area at the main-road end of the bridge and gear up for a walk. We cross the bridge and, knowing what will be in store, head north.

The trail climbs gently up a hillside through a small patch of burned-over timber. Yellow violets and blue-purple snow queens sprawl beside our path, mixed with a few cream-colored Oregon fawn lilies. We round the end of a ridge and come, as we knew we would, into a tiny paradise. The trail skirts the rim of a small bowl; at the head of the bowl, Burned Timber Creek laces gracefully down a 30-foot cliff. To the left, beyond a bit of woods, the ridge we have just crossed ends in a long, gently sloping rock outcrop. The rock is bright yellow with spring gold.

We take a faint way trail out to the rock outcrop and spend the next thirty minutes among the flowers.

Oregon fawn lily
Sea blush
Clockwise from upper left: round-leaf violet, Howell’s saxifrage, chickweed monkeyflower, snow queen.

The rest of the day was anticlimatic, so I’ll keep this brief. Back on the trail, we crossed Burned Timber Creek a few dozen feet above the falls on a makeshift log bridge placed by the trail crews who cleaned up after the Klondike Fire and contoured up the steep hillside beyond. A mile or so from the trailhead, an unmarked but well-built trail forked off to the right: we followed it to the Burned Timber Creek Road and strolled down that to the point where we had begun, a couple of hours before. Back in the car, we drove south to Lone Tree Pass, stopping briefly at a small gorge near the mouth of Minnow Creek and again at a massive display of Oregon fawn lilies near the China Creek trailhead. The road to the pass narrowed for the last mile after leaving the creek, winding through the charred remains of one of the hottest burns of the fire; the pass provided views of green mountains through burned timber.

We stopped once on the way out, at a trailhead near China Creek, to check the status of a footbridge built there just two years before the fire (it had survived) and headed for home, pulling into the driveway shortly after 5:00 pm with half of the Bolt’s battery still unused. We could have done it again, but although the car had plenty of energy, the two humans in it were happily tuckered out. Another time.