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Featured image: Photo of new Bolt EUV and Bolt EV by GM.

Batteries

GM’s Real EV Confidence Problem Will Be Among Ultium Buyers

A few months ago, I got a notice in the mail from my car’s manufacturer. A factory defect meant that cars like mine were at risk of catching on fire. Even worse, there was no immediate fix available. The notice gave some tips on avoiding fire and signs to watch out for, and said that a future notice would give me an opportunity to schedule the recall repair. For now, I have to wait and hope the thing doesn’t go up in flames.

Of course, I’m talking about a problem with my bolt. Well, not a Chevy Bolt, but the bolts that hold the fuel rail down on my 2017 Jetta’s 1.4L engine. Volkswagen says they didn’t tighten them down right, and some of them are coming loose. Leaked fuel in the wrong place tends to go up in flames, so for now it’s best to be on the lookout for the smell of gasoline. I’m one of the rare mutants with no sense of smell, so I’m regularly asking the wife and kids to do a quick sniff.

We hardly ever drive the thing (11,000 miles in 4 years), but even if we did, the chances of an engine fire are still quite low, just as they are with the Chevy Bolt. Just one year of Jetta sales outnumbers the whole Bolt EV production since 2017, but I’ve never seen a news article about the Jetta’s fire recall, nor have I seen any hysterical signs saying that Jettas aren’t allowed in any parking lots.

Electric vehicles, on the other hand, get lots of attention when anything goes wrong with them, though. Whether this is caused by their relative novelty, a conspiracy between media and fossil fuel companies, or just an overabundance of slow news days, there’s no denying that nearly everyone knows that the Chevy Bolt EV is a fire risk, and should be treated in much the same way as sex offenders and people who like to play Nickelback at high volume.

GM’s Perceived Confidence Problem

GM definitely isn’t having fun yet. A recent news story says that the company is “not confident” in LG Chem’s ability to build safe replacement batteries for the recall. Now, GM is telling Bolt owners to not park within 50 feet of other cars (a good idea in general if one doesn’t want door dings) and owners are trying to get GM to buy their cars back.

Our editor, Zach Shahan, pointed us in the direction of a bigger problem GM is facing here. On the one hand, we’re fortunate that the Bolt EV didn’t become a mass-market EV. If there were Bolt EVs everywhere instead of Model 3s, or if Bolt sales had vastly exceeded Model 3 sales, that car would be the flagship of EVs in the public mind, and all EVs could be painted with the same broad brush. Fortunately, the “Tesla killer” journalists like to predict never came about, and Tesla doesn’t have much in the way of fire problems.

On the other hand, the Bolt EV fire debacle is still bad for the general reputation of EVs, just not as bad as it could have been. Tesla can still argue that it sells a lot more EVs with far fewer fires, and that its battery and pack designs are quite different from the Bolt EV. That won’t stop the usual oil-funded trolls from trying to paint all EVs with the Bolt’s fire brush, but it’s enough to frighten less informed people away from EVs.

GM’s Real Confidence Problem

GM has this problem worse than the general EV market, though. Obviously, it’s their car that’s going through the fire (usually figuratively, but sometimes literally), and it will cost the company big bucks to replace all of those battery packs. Worse, it could cost GM quite a bit more if they have to buy them back.

This sounds big, but consider that the Bolt EV was still only sold in relatively limited numbers. The Tesla Model 3 outnumbers the Bolt EV somewhere around 3:1, and a gas-powered mass market car (like my Jetta) outnumbers the Bolt EV’s entire production run in just one year of sales. It’s a big whallop they’re taking, but it’s dwarfed by the rest of GM’s gas and diesel-powered sales, so it’s a whallop that the company can handle, at least in the short term.

This will be much much bigger problem going forward, though. Why? Because GM’s much-flaunted Ultium battery technology is also built by LG Chem. Yes, it’s likely a different design and is built as part of a partnership, and really might be different enough that there’s no fire risk.

But think of this from the perspective of a potential buyer. You hear that GM’s EVs are catching fire, can’t be parked safely within 50 feet of other cars, and are otherwise ticking time bombs. Sure, GM’s Ultium cars are powered by different batteries, but just to be safe, you decide to check in with Google.

You pretty quickly figure out that Ultium batteries are built by the same people who built the Bolt’s battery pack. Sure, GM and the salesman and the GMC dealer says the Hummer’s battery pack is safe, but they thought the Bolt’s pack was safe for years before they knew there was a problem.

If you’re looking for something truly massive, like the Hummer EV, then you also know that its battery pack is even bigger than the Bolt’s battery. That probably means a bigger fire, right? Or will it reach some sort of critical mass and blow up your whole neighborhood? Or will the neighbors hate you for parking that on the street? What if that nasty HOA Karen down the street finds out about the fire risk? Will she try to ban the Hummer from parking in the neighborhood?

Not A Silly Thing

Like I said, this all sounds silly from the perspective of people who closely follow the industry. GM really is using different battery cells for the Ultium packs, and even if there were a problem, the Ultium plant is unlikely to start churning out battery packs on a truly massive scale until they’re sure the problem didn’t follow the company into the Ultium partnership.

But if you’re a minimally-informed consumer looking to buy an EV, the Bolt’s battery fire issue is going to frighten you away from GM and toward Ford, Nissan, Tesla, or Volkswagen.

GM had better get the Bolt situation under control before it ruins its future plans. As EV sales scale up heading toward 2030 and beyond, GM can’t afford to miss out on its cut of the pie.

Featured image: Bolt EV and EUV, provided by GM.

 
 
 
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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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