Ford, GM, and Hyundai are all struggling with battery fire issues in their electric and plug-in hybrid cars. A few years ago, battery fires in Tesla automobiles were major front page news events even though they were far lower in percentage than gas car fires (there are ~150 gas car fires a day in the US, or about 55,000 a year). Not being about Tesla, these latest fires from non-Tesla EVs have caused less of a media frenzy. Still, those who of us who wish for a faster transition to all electric transportation understand that people who are on the fence about driving an electric car don’t need any excuse to delay their decision to buy one.
Ford Kuga Fires Push Back Escape PHEV In US
The Ford Kuga is the European version of the popular Ford Escape sold in North America. Ford has introduced a plug-in hybrid version of that vehicle in Europe but has recently recalled 20,500 of them due to battery overheating issues and concerns that there could be a risk of fires in the traction battery unless the problem is resolved.
The Blue Oval brand had planned to introduce a plug-in hybrid of the Escape in North America last summer, but those plans were pushed back by the coronavirus pandemic. This week, Ford issued a statement saying, “We are moving full scale production of Escape PHEV to the 2021 model year. The first Escape PHEVs will be sold next year.” A company spokesperson in Europe added, “Because we share components with Kuga PHEV, including battery cells, we are moving production to next year, while we work with the battery cell supplier to resolve the issue affecting Kuga PHEV in Europe,” according to a report by Autoblog.
The Escape PHEV compact SUV will have a 14.4 kWh battery and 37 miles of electric only range according to the EPA, when and if it ever goes on sale. Compare that to the 28 miles of range offered for more than twice the money by Audi and Volkswagen in their full-size plug-in hybrid versions of the Q8 and Tiguan equipped with 17.8 kWh batteries. The Escape PHEV, with an EPA rating of 100 MPGe, seems like it should be a very competent vehicle, once the overheating battery issue is resolved. (We assume it will be.)
Chevy Bolt Fires
NHTSA has opened an investigation into battery fires involving the Chevy Bolt, the only GM battery electric vehicle currently for sale in the US. According to Autoblog, one of the fires involves a 2017 model that caught fire while charging at home on a Level 2 charger and one involves a 2018 model that caught fire after it was parked following a 12 mile trip. The third involves a 2019 model that someone found in an insurance company salvage yard.
According to news reports, all three cars showed signs of scorching in the area beneath the rear seat where the high-voltage battery is located. According to an NHTSA bulletin, the fires started in the battery compartment. They did not originate in the interior of the cars.
The investigation will assess the scope, frequency, circumstances, and safety consequences of the alleged fires. Depending on what it finds, the agency will either close the investigation if it finds the fires were isolated incidents not linked to a manufacturer defect or delve more deeply into the issue. Nearly 78,000 Chevy Bolts built between the 2017 and 2020 model years could be affected. The investigation probably won’t do the resale value of used Bolts any good and may also affect sales of new cars, which haven’t exactly been flying off dealer lots lately.
Chevrolet plans to introduce what it calls an EUV or electric utility vehicle based on the Bolt soon. The EUV is essentially a Bolt with a longer and higher rear roof, giving more cargo room inside. Rumors of potential battery fires won’t help the launch of that new vehicle any.
Hyundai & LG Chem Argue Over Kona EV Battery Fires
The Hyundai Kona Electric has also been hit by reports of battery fires. It has sold more than 77,000 Kona Electrics worldwide and has announced it is recalling 25,564 cars in South Korea. It has also notified NHTSA that it may recall 11,137 cars sold in the US. 37,366 cars in Europe may also be affected.
The fires have put stress on the relationship between Hyundai and LG Chem, the company that manufactures the battery cells for the Kona Electric. According to Autoblog, the South Korean transport ministry said last week that Hyundai will voluntarily recall its Kona EVs as the result of a possible short circuit due to what may be a manufacturing fault in its high-voltage battery cells, a charge that LG Chem vigorously denies. It says joint tests by its engineers and engineers from Hyundai show there is no defect in its cells. LG Chem is also the supplier of battery cells for the Chevy Bolt and is heavily involved in GM’s Utium battery project.
The cars recalled in South Korea will undergo software updates and battery replacements of select models after inspections are completed. KB Investment & Securities said in a report this week it could cost Hyundai as much as $522.10 million if it has to replace all potentially affected Kona Electric vehicles worldwide.
The Take Away
Battery fires are not good for the EV revolution, not good at all. Lately we have heard news about next-generation lithium-iron-phosphate batteries that have nearly the same energy density as conventional lithium-ion batteries but have a much lower risk of thermal runaway events that can result in fires. Tesla is now using them in its Model 3 sedans manufactured in Shanghai and has lowered the starting price of the Model 3 as well. It may turn out that LFP batteries are better suited to use in automobiles where tight spaces require expensive battery cooling systems. Is Tesla’s transition to LFP batteries a harbinger of things to come in the electric car industry? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.