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.

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.

Refueling

What it’s really like to take an electric car on a road trip.

At the charger in Sutherlin – not the first time we’ve shared a set of charging stations with another white Bolt. Ours is the one on the right, with its back to the camera.

I’m one trip behind on hike reports, but I thought I should do this first. We’ve just returned from a week in McMinnville, Oregon – a small town near Portland, 250 miles from our home in Medford. That is a “maybe” distance for an electric car: maybe we could make it all the way if we start with a full battery, but maybe not. So prudence dictated a refueling stop each way, as well as at the destination. And because the process of refueling an electric car on the road is broadly misunderstood, it seems useful to try to clear up some misconceptions by describing exactly how it worked on this particular trip.

One caveat: it is still necessary to plan carefully. This has nothing to do with the actual recharging process, and everything to do with the state of the charging network. There are gas stations just about everywhere, but charging stations are still few and far between. I dream of the day when there are charging stations on every corner and it’s the drivers of gasoline vehicles who have to plan, but we have to deal with reality. I had to choose in advance where to stop along the way, and I made reservations far ahead in the single reasonably-priced motel in McMinnville that has a charger in its parking lot.

Once that part is out of the way, though, the rest is easy. It is actually simpler to charge an electric car’s battery than it is to fill a gas tank, and it takes less time out of your trip. Let me repeat that: it is actually simpler to charge an electric car’s battery than it is to fill a gas tank, and it takes less time out of your trip. The horror stories you hear about how dreadfully long it takes to charge are probably true for the people who experience them, but they result from failure to understand that charging a battery is not like filling a fuel tank. It’s a different process, and requires a different way of thinking.

With a gasoline car, the usual procedure is to run the car until the tank is nearly empty, then pull into a gas station and fill all the way up. While it’s filling, you stay with the car. If the gas station is also a convenience store, you may run in to buy a bag of potato chips or a cup of coffee to go; otherwise, you just wait for the ten or fifteen minutes it takes the tank to fill. With an electric car, that model simply doesn’t work. You’re rarely going to fill the battery all the way up – that’s not even a good idea (doing it regularly can shorten the battery’s life). And you don’t need to stay with the car. While the charger is doing its thing, you can be off doing something else. Here’s how that works – actual experience, on our trip that ended yesterday.

PLANNING: I started by trying to find out whether we would be able to charge the car in McMinnville. The best tool for this is the Plugshare website (plugshare.com), a crowdsourced site that attempts to map and describe every public charger in the country. We would be spending the first two nights in a motel before moving to a dorm on the Linfield College campus, so I looked for motels with “destination chargers” – level 2 (220-240 volt) chargers located at places where you expect to stay a long time, such as overnight. McMinnville’s Best Western had such a charger. I called to see if we could reserve it; the answer was “no”, but the woman I spoke with said it was rarely used. That seemed satisfactory. I booked a room.

Next, I visited A Better Route Planner (abetterrouteplanner.com), a routing site designed specifically to help electric-car drivers find the most efficient routes for long-distance travel. It suggested a charging stop in Sutherlin, a small town just north of Roseburg, to boost the battery up to 71%. That, it said, would be enough to reach McMinnville with about twenty miles to spare. Estimated time on the charger would be 13 minutes. I checked out the Sutherlin charger on Plugshare and found it had a 10-star rating (out of 10) and four charging stations, which meant we could probably count on getting the charge started immediately. It was also next to a Dairy Queen and near a Starbucks. I penciled it in. Planning was complete.

THE TRIP NORTH: The night before our departure, I reset the top charge on the Bolt from 95%, where we usually keep it, to 100%. That would be insurance against broken or full chargers. As I backed the fully-packed and fully-charged car out of the garage the next morning, I noticed that the range indicator said we had 307 miles, which would get us to McMinnville with more than 50 miles to spare. That, of course, was based on running around Medford, rather than dashing a couple of hundred miles at freeway speeds with the air conditioner on. We decided to stop at Sutherlin anyway.

The drive went smoothly. At Sutherlin I plugged in, inserted my credit card, and had electricity flowing into the car in about a minute and a half. We had nearly 60% of the battery left, so we decided 10 minutes of charge would probably do. We slipped into the Starbucks, and those 10 minutes stretched to nearly half an hour, giving the car an 83% charge. I unplugged – about a 30-second procedure – and we headed for McMinnville, taking the shorter but slower Territorial Highway instead of the freeway route that A Better Route Planner had suggested. That got us to the McMinnville Best Western with 100 miles of range left. The charger’s parking slot was empty and the charger was a SemaConnect, for which we carry a charge card. Plugging in and starting the juice flowing took all of about 45 seconds. We would wake up the next morning with a full battery. It would take about 5 seconds to unplug.

THE TRIP SOUTH: We didn’t use the car much for the five and a half days we spent in McMinnville, so we didn’t bother charging again. Pulling out of town in the early afternoon, I noticed that we had a 95% charge – plenty to get back to Sutherlin, where we stopped and plugged in again. The charger told us it could get the car back up to an 80% charge in 40 minutes. It was just before 5:00 PM, so we went to the Dairy Queen and grabbed a meal. We finished eating with about ten minutes left of the estimated 40. The battery was up to 74% – more than enough to get to Medford – so I stopped the charge and unplugged. We changed drivers and Melody drove us the 110 miles home, at freeway speeds, with the A/C on and the outside temperature hovering above 90°F. We pulled into the driveway with 77 miles of range left.

ANALYSIS: Adding up the various plugging and unplugging times, you’ll find that we spent under five minutes charging the car. The car actually charged much longer than that, of course, but it’s really our time that counts, and while the car was charging, our time was spent doing things we would have done anyway. I wanted to stop for coffee, anyway; we would have slept in the motel all night, anyway; we would have made a dinner stop someplace on the way home, anyway. By combining those stops with charging, we had actually saved time over what it would have taken us to fill a gas tank twice. Or even once.

So that’s what it’s really like to make a 500-mile round trip in an electric car – a car that is as capable as any vehicle I’ve ever driven, and more fun than most. And it’s probably worth adding that the Bolt’s small appearance is deceptive. We got all we needed for a week – including our clothes and toiletries, a guitar, a laptop, a box of papers for the conference we were attending, and the car’s wall charger (just in case) – into the covered space behind the back seat, and we carted three extra people around McMinnville for part of the time we were there. Aside from the planning time needed, there was literally no downside to taking the Bolt instead of taking a gasoline-powered car. Ignore the naysayers. Welcome to the real future of driving.

The story so far

I will normally report events as they happen and thoughts as they occur to me, but – since this blog is to be primarily about our life with an electric car – I thought I should use the first entry to summarize that life so far.

We bought the Bolt in early December, so as I write this in mid-April we’ve had it for approximately 4-1/2 months. In that time, we’ve put about 4,200 miles on it. This has been mostly local driving and short trips within our southern Oregon/northern California region, but we’ve also used the car on two extended overnights, one to the northern California coast (with a side visit to Redwood National Park) and the other to our daughter’s home in San Jose, California. Not once while on the road during any of those trips have I wished I was driving a gasoline-powered car instead. Like any other car, it’s just a matter of drive it, fuel it, drive it some more. It’s good for several straight hours of freeway driving, and you want a break after that anyway.

But you will notice that I said “on the road”. While planning for the longer trips, I have definitely felt a little gasoline envy as I tried to decide where to stop to refill the battery. Gas stations are everywhere; public chargers are still few and far between. Where we’ve gone so far I’ve always managed to find convenient ones, but I’m uncomfortably aware that this will not always be the case. Empty spots on the charger map still exist, and some of them are places I wish we could go, but at this point cannot.

The problem was brought acutely home to us when, less than a week before we were due to leave on the San Jose trip, all the public Level 3 chargers (the ones that can recharge a car like ours in a bit over an hour) suddenly went down along Interstate 5 from just south of the California border to just north of Sacramento. Panic quickly ensued: we were going to need a charger somewhere in that gap. I began to envision spending several hours at a Level 2 (household 220-volt level) to get just enough juice to reach Dunnigan, where the first available Level 3 was located. Fortunately, one of the two chargers in Redding came back up twelve hours before the trip’s start, and we were able to proceed according to plan. But gasoline envy was strong, there, for several days.

This, of course, is an infrastructure problem, not an electric car problem.

But enough with the generalities, already. For several years, now, I’ve been posting short descriptions of our trips on Facebook, together with photos. I’m going to make this already long blog post quite a bit longer by posting a few of the post-Bolt-purchase trip descriptions and a small selection of their accompanying photos below. This will give you an idea what to expect in this space in the future. Captions have been added for some of the photos, and a few bracketed additions have been made to the texts for clarification.


Dec 4, 2018: Well, we’ve gone and done it….purchased a Chevrolet Bolt. Farewell, gasoline. This isn’t ours – I lifted this picture from the dealer’s website, and ours isn’t there anymore because, well, they sold it – but it looks just like ours. White isn’t my favorite color, but I’ll live with it. I’m pretty sure this will be our last car ever.

Dec 9, 2018: First trip out of the Medford/Ashland corridor with the Bolt. We took it to Gold Hill, then home again via Sams Valley. Stopped in Gold Hill and took a walk on the bike path upstream along the Rogue – here are a few pictures from that walk. We got home with 189 miles of electric range left. Gasoline-free travel is now practical.


Gold Hill’s historic bridge over the Rogue, an open-spandrel concrete arch built in 1927.

Jan 3, 2019: Not the best afternoon for playing in the snow – or for photography – but it’s what we had, so we took it. The Great Meadow beside Lake of the Woods in the southern Oregon Cascades, at the foot of Mt McLoughlin. It was largely a test of the Bolt’s winter range – we’re gradually building familiarity with the car, so we’ll know where to plan to spend the time necessary to recharge it on our longer trips. Round trip, our house to the sno-park area at the Great Meadow and back again, is 84 miles. The Guess-O-Meter (the car’s range estimator) read 202 fully charged at the house and 130 when we pulled back into the garage, so we did roughly 12 per cent better than the car thought we would. Of note: the range estimate at the High Lakes Summit on the way home read 120 miles. That’s at 5100 feet, about 3700 feet higher than the house. Regeneration coming down ten miles of 5% grade will do wonders for an electric car. If you’re running on gasoline, of course, the same descent won’t add so much as a drop. Anyway – enjoy the pictures.

Jan 14, 2019: Today’s trip explored an area I’ve been curious about for a long time. Driving from Medford to Klamath Falls on Highway 140, you cross the Cascades and come down close to the shore of Klamath Lake – the largest natural lake in Oregon – then leave it temporarily to go over a saddle on the west side of Spence Mountain, a small mountain that forms a peninsula into the lake. I’ve always wondered what was out there on that peninsula; today, we found out. The peninsula is split by an embayment called Shoalwater Bay, and there’s a fairly new Klamath County park on the shore of the bay called Eagle Ridge, out four miles of gravel road from 140. The road narrows to a ribbon of rough dirt right along the shore beyond the park’s campground; we parked the Bolt in the campground and walked about a mile further out the bay’s shoreline, along the road. Total time from home was about 11:30 AM to 3:00 PM. Got home with over a hundred miles left in the car’s battery – I don’t think all-electric driving is going to limit us very much.

Ice on Shoalwater Bay.
A juvenile bald eagle at Shoalwater Bay.
In the Stout Grove, Redwood National Park.

Jan 26, 2019: We took a quick trip to Crescent City on Thursday and Friday. This was partly because we hadn’t been to the coast for a while, and partly a test to see how the electric car would do on a longer trip, where we would have to charge on the road. The Anchor Beach Motel in Crescent City has level II chargers, is right on the beach and a short walk from the seafood restaurants on the wharf, and was a steal with an ocean view 2nd floor room for $72 including tax. The Bolt came through splendidly: we drove down on Thursday, drove around Crescent City and points nearby, plugged in overnight, drove around a bit more, and drove home. Pulled into the garage with nearly 50 miles left. Range anxiety? What’s that?

The view from our room.
Crescent City sunset.
Henderson’s shooting star

Mar 30, 2019: Took advantage of a sunny afternoon and took our first real flower hike of the season in the Cathedral Hills, a joint Josephine County/BLM wild area on the southern outskirts of Grants Pass. We went in by the Sky Crest trailhead (circled in blue on the map) and followed the route marked in red – out via the Timber Riders Trail to the intersection marked with a small 3 in a yellow circle, then down the Outback Trail to the Ponderosa Pine Loop. Back via the Outback Trail to its closest approach to the trailhead, then the rest of the way back to the car on the Timber Riders Trail again. Flowers are about three weeks behind last year. A feature of the Cathedral Hills is the massive number of Indian Warriors (Pedicularis densiflora) found along its trails, and they certainly didn’t disappoint – but there were plenty of other species, too. Here is a small smattering of the 83 photos I took: enjoy.

Apr 5, 2019: In Winters California this morning. We parked the Bolt at a charger, went to breakfast, came back to the car, and were suddenly seeing double.

Ours is the one at the rear.

Apr 8, 2019: We’re back in Medford after a whirlwind four-day trip to San Jose to help our daughter Sara Scholz turn 46. I’m sorry to say that I took no pictures of Sara, of our two (now adult) granddaughters, or of the delightful birthday party at Mountain Mike’s Pizza that included six of Sara’s highly compatible inlaws. I should probably turn in my grandpa badge. However, we did manage our usual side trip to a point of interest on the way down, and I took plenty of pictures there. You’ll have to be content with those.

This time the side trip destination was Observation Point at Black Butte Lake, west of Orland in the northern Sacramento Valley. We’d been to the lake before, but not to this particular part of it. It was an overcast day, but it didn’t rain, and the flowers were near their peak; the pictures, as usual, are mostly of those. We met one woman walking her dog, and a couple doing some bird watching, but other than those we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Always pleasant when that happens.

I should say a word about our mode of transportation. We took the Bolt (had to: we no longer have any other vehicle), so we were driving on electricity the whole distance. I have to admit to a little trepidation about refueling stops, but it was unnecessary. There are a lot fewer quick chargers than there are gas stations, so one has to plan more carefully, but the actual drive was no different from past experiences along the same route. We have almost always had to stop twice each way to refuel – we stopped twice each way this time, too. The stops were longer (an hour or more each), but we were usually able to combine them with meals, so we were rarely just sitting around and waiting. On the road, the Bolt did what electric cars do, which is to do everything a gasoline car does, but better: they are quicker, more reponsive, and – due to the weight of the batteries, which are evenly distributed on the bottom of the vehicle – more solidly planted on the corners. Most of the way north from Redding we were in a pouring rain, which the car dealt with at least as well as any other vehicle I’ve ever driven. Thinking about a new car, but fearful of going electric? Talk to me.

OK – enough sales talk. We enjoyed the car. You enjoy the pictures.

Apr 18, 2019: We took advantage of a nice warm sunny spring day and went up to see the results of this winter’s monstrous snowfall at Crater Lake. Snow on the rim is between 12 and 20 feet deep, and it’s close to that down at Park headquarters; there is some snow down as far as Union Creek. We’ve lived in southern Oregon for close to 50 years and have never seen the park in this condition. But it set off the lake nicely, and the lake itself looked gorgeous – still as a mirror under a cloud-dotted blue sky, surrounded by all that white. We stopped on the way up to visit Mill Creek and Barr Creek Falls near Prospect, and on the way down to walk along the Rogue River Gorge at Union Creek (and, of course, enjoy a piece of Beckie’s pie).

This was the Bolt’s first trip to Crater Lake, and I was curious to see how much juice we would have left when we got home. I was expecting the trip would take maybe 4/5 of the battery, which would leave us with about 12 kwh. Turned out we made the trip on just a little over half the battery capacity; we got home with over 26 kwh left. That’s enough to go well over 100 additional miles, and to put a huge grin on my face.