In what will be the most expensive recall in automotive history, Hyundai has announced it will replace the batteries installed in 76,000 Kona EVs built between 2018 and 2020, including about 25,000 sold in South Korea. Some Ioniq EV models and Elec City buses are also included in the recall, according to Autoblog. There have been 15 reported fires involving the Kona EV — 11 in South Korea, two in Canada, and one each in Finland and Austria. The battery cells for the Kona EV were manufactured by LG Chem, whose battery division is now called LG Energy Solutions.
After the first fires were reported, Hyundai recalled all the cars sold in South Korea and applied a software update. Subsequently, one of those updated cars experienced a battery fire and that’s when the wheels really came off the wagon. The company estimates the recall will cost about $900 million, which includes the $40 million already spent on the software patch.
Now here’s the interesting part. Chevrolet also uses batteries supplied by LG Chem for its Bolt EV. That car has also experienced a few battery fires. Currently, GM has a created a software update that limits charging to 90% of battery capacity (or 95% — it depends on who you ask). The software patch tried by Hyundai also limited charging to 90% of capacity. GM now says it will address the battery fire issue via new software and will have a complete update package available by April.
Kevin M. Kelly, Senior Manager for Product and Brand Communications, told GM Authority last week that Chevrolet is working diligently towards a fix for the problem and that it expects to have a more permanent solution in the coming months. “We have hundreds of engineers working around the clock on the issue and we have made progress on identifying the cause and potential remedies. We are in the process of validating state-of-the-art software that can diagnose potential issues early and restore 100% charge capability. We expect to roll out the remedy in April.”
So two companies using the same battery supplier and experiencing the same battery fire issue are taking two entirely different approaches. One believes it must spend almost a billion dollars to replace all the batteries. The other believes it can address the problem adequately with improved software. One of them is correct but which one?
The Stakes Couldn’t Be Higher
“It’s very significant for both Hyundai and LG as we are in the early stages of the electric vehicle era. How Hyundai handles this will set a precedent not just in South Korea but also for other countries,” says Lee Hang-koo, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade. He is correct. The EV revolution can suffer a serious setback if the general public starts worrying whether that electric car in the driveway is going to burst into flames overnight. Never mind that fires in gasoline-powered cars are so common the press doesn’t even report on them anymore. Perception is reality and if people perceive of electric cars as dangerous, that will be a disaster for the electric car industry going forward.
Once again, big corporate egos are part of the problem. Hyundai and LG Chem are pointing fingers at each other. LG Chem claims Hyundai did not follow its advice on how to manage fast charging and that there is nothing wrong with its battery cells. Yet the government of South Korea says it has found some defects in those cells in testing. Now the wrangling will start about who should pay what proportion of the cost of replacing all those battery packs.
The subject of corporate pride is also at issue in the US where the International Trade Commission last week sided with LG Chem in its claim that SK Innovation misappropriated proprietary intellectual property when it hired a bevy of former LG Chem employees. Unless that dispute is settled, SKI may be barred from selling batteries in the US for 10 years. The biggest barrier to resolving their differences? LG Chem wants an admission from SKI that it stole trade secrets and a public apology.
Hyundai To Use SKI Batteries For Ioniq 5
Now here’s the final piece of the puzzle. Hyundai announced this week that SK Innovation will supply the batteries for the Ioniq 5, the new retro-styled electric SUV that will be the first offering from Hyundai’s electric car brand. So while Hyundai is fighting with LG Chem about who is responsible for battery fires in the Kona EV, it has selected the company LG Chem claims stole its trade secrets to power Hyundai’s signature electric cars of the future. Does it get any weirder?
Yes, in fact it does. LG Chem and General Motors have teamed up to build a new factory to manufacture the Ultium batteries that will power GM’s new electric vehicle push. GM is betting heavily on LG Chem, now LG Energy Solutions, at a time when its products may or may not be suspected of involvement in battery fires. If a few new Cadillac Lyriq electric SUVs should burst into flames, that relationship could be irreparably damaged and the EV revolution in the US set back for years to come. There is a lot riding on GM and LG getting this right.
GM’s decision to address the Bolt EV battery issue with a software update is consistent with its corporate policies in the past. It was not that long ago that we learned The General ignored potential defects with ignition switches in some of its vehicles for years. Corporate culture is often just as important as engineering. If GM truly has a handle on the battery issues, that will be wonderful news. But if it is merely kicking the can down the road as it has done frequently in the past, it could be playing with fire both literally and figuratively.
The electrification of the transportation and energy sectors is crucial to addressing global warming effectively. One of the reasons why battery manufacturers are experimenting with LFP (lithium iron phosphate) battery cells like the blade battery from BYD is they have a much lower risk of fire than traditional lithium-ion cells. Early versions had a lower energy density and slower charging speeds, but the technology is moving forward rapidly.
Just this week, a report from Tesmania claimed the LFP batteries used in the Chinese Tesla Model 3 are able to charge faster for longer periods of time than the conventional lithium-ion batteries used in the US-made version of that car thanks to a recent OTA software update. The upshot? Battery technology is moving fast. Automakers will have to move fast as well in order to keep up.
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