Today’s news is very bad for General Motors. Before now, fire problems were thought to be limited to the 2017-2019 model years of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, and that problem was almost solved. Now, Chevrolet is telling us that even newer vehicles, including some of the 2020-2022 Bolt EVs as well as the new Bolt EUV risk going up in flames. As I’ll explain, this takes the Bolt EV fire problem from bad to worse for the company.
The problem started in 2020 after 5 Bolt EVs caught fire. All of these vehicles were from the 2017-19 model years, and the initial recall focused on those vehicles. When vehicles were charged to 100%, they had a risk of fire, so GM initially told people to keep the vehicles below 90% while they worked on a fix.
The problem seemed to be related to the recall of vehicles from other manufacturers who also bought battery cells from LG Chem, but at first GM determined that it didn’t need to replace cells the way that other manufacturers did, because the problems were different with the cells it bought. I found GM’s story questionable at this point, and wondered whether that story would last, or if it would have to go the way Hyundai did and start replacing batteries. I said at the time:
What we don’t know is what happens when Chevy’s software detects potential issues. I’m guessing that the car will throw a trouble code and possibly show a warning on the display saying to get yourself to a dealer for a checkup. At that point, GM might have to replace some cells or the entire pack to keep things safe.
If only a few cars have problems, it won’t hurt GM that bad, and if the software works well, it will prevent future fires, so nobody will get hurt. If the problem gets worse over time and affects more vehicles, that will be a big problem for GM and the affected customers.
A software update was put out that would monitor the cells and give an early warning of fire issues, and that satisfied the initial recall, so I initially appeared to be wrong. GM’s software update must’ve been good enough if the company was willing to stake its reputation on it, right? It turned out that a software recall wasn’t enough, and the fires continued happening. Just a few days ago, GM announced that it would have to start replacing at least some of the battery packs in vehicles, but it was still getting recall letters put together and would need to get the ball rolling on replacement packs, too.
Until today, the company was still at least able to tell people interested in purchasing a new 2022 Bolt (or one of the many 2020 and 2021 Bolts still stuck on dealers’ lots) that the fire was only for older models. The new one they’re trying to sell you? It’s got different battery cells, so don’t worry about it. Sale made, all’s good.
Now It’s A Problem For Newer Bolt EVs, & Even The EUV “Crossover” Model
“As part of GM’s commitment to safety, experts from GM and LG have identified the simultaneous presence of two rare manufacturing defects in the same battery cell as the root cause of battery fires in certain Chevrolet Bolt EVs. As a result, GM will be conducting a recall of Bolt EVs (2017-2022) and Bolt EUVs (2022) to address the risk of battery fires in these vehicles.” the company’s website says.
It also appears that there’s no chance of a software update, and that GM is going to be replacing packs.
Out of an abundance of caution, GM will replace defective lithium ion battery modules in Chevrolet Bolt EVs and EUVs with new lithium ion modules. We will notify customers when replacement parts are ready. We are asking customers to take the following steps until the new remedy has been performed:
1. Set your vehicle to a 90 percent state of charge limitation using Hilltop Reserve mode (for 2017-2018 model years) or Target Charge Level (for 2019-2022 model year) mode. Instructions on how to do this are available in the video below. If you are unable to successfully make these changes, or do not feel comfortable making these changes, GM is asking you to visit your dealer to have these adjustments completed.
2. Charge your vehicle more frequently and avoid depleting your battery below approximately 70 miles (113 kilometers) of remaining range, where possible.
3. Park your vehicle outside immediately after charging and do not leave your vehicle charging indoors overnight.
There’s no timetable currently announced for when GM will be replacing those battery packs, or what kind of time customers will have to go without their cars during the repair process. They mention replacing modules, so it could take considerable time to drop a pack, replace its guts, and put it back in compared to just swapping a whole pack.
Why This Is Really Bad For GM’s EV Effort
Until now, it was possible to say that the Bolt fire issues only applied to past model years, and that repair efforts were underway for those vehicles. If new vehicles were unaffected, then that would mean the upcoming Ultium vehicles (something GM is working with LG on, too) would also be unaffected. That’s a good spot to be in.
Now, uncertainty hangs over all of GM’s current plans, because if even the newest LG cells in the Bolt EUV are at risk of fire, then Ultium is also now an open question. Does this bad news mean that the Hummer EV, Cadillac Lyriq, Silverado EV, and other models are going to also be at risk? What about the rest of Bolt EV and EUV production? Nobody has any way to know right now.
If GM is smart, it will explain pretty quickly how Ultium cells differ from current LG cells (assuming that they do), and do other things to reassure customers that upcoming vehicles won’t suffer a similar recall and fire fate. If GM is not smart, it will let this situation fester and let the whole EV effort get the same reputation for fire that the Fiero did.
Ball’s in GM’s court. Hopefully it will get this right.
Featured image: Photo of new Bolt EUV and Bolt EV by GM.