Setting The Record Straight On Electric Car Fires

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General Motors has all but ceased production of its Chevy Bolt electric car after 16 of them were destroyed by battery fires. Right now, production is not scheduled to resume until the end of February — at the earliest — and some people wonder whether GM will quietly step away from the Bolt until such time as it is ready to bring a new electric passenger car to market.

It did something like that with the Chevy Cavalier when the platform it was built on became too outdated to continue. Voila! Say hello to the Chevy Cobalt! It looked a lot like the Cavalier, used most of the Cavalier powertrain, and had similar specs to the Cavalier, but it was built on an all new chassis. The Cavalier name simply disappeared from the Chevrolet lexicon and the division moved on. Has the Bolt name been so tarnished that it is no longer viable in the marketplace?

The company has recalled all of the more than 141,000 Bolts sold. It is buying back some cars, replacing the entire battery pack in some cars, or simply replacing some modules in certain battery packs. Details are sketchy about what any particular owner can expect, but the estimated cost of the recall — which LG Energy Solution has agreed to be primarily responsible for — is around $1 billion.

Battery fires are, of course, a concern to any current or prospective electric car owner but in the interests of full disclosure, it’s not like conventional cars with gasoline engines don’t catch fire once in a while.

According to a FEMA report in 2018,

  • Approximately one in eight fires responded to by fire departments across the nation is a highway vehicle fire. This does not include the tens of thousands of fire department responses to highway vehicle accident sites.
  • Unintentional action (38%) was the leading cause of highway vehicle fires.
  • 83% of highway vehicle fires occurred in passenger vehicles.
  • 62% of highway vehicle fires and 36% of fatal highway vehicle fires originated in the engine, running gear or wheel area of the vehicle.
  • Mechanical failure was the leading factor contributing to the ignition of highway vehicle fires (45%).
  • Insulation around electrical wiring (29%) and flammable liquids in the engine area (18%) were the most common items first ignited in highway vehicle fires.
  • 60% of fatal vehicle fires were the result of a collision.

FEMA says, “Each year, from 2014 to 2016, an estimated 171,500 highway vehicle fires occurred in the United States, resulting in an annual average of 345 deaths; 1,300 injuries; and $1.1 billion in property loss. These highway vehicle fires accounted for 13 percent of fires responded to by fire departments across the nation.”

That, folks, is a lot of fires, but you don’t see people rushing about screaming about the dangers of gasoline-powered cars. We can probably thank the nice folks in the fossil fuel industry with their bottomless piles of cash for pushing the bad news about EV fires while making sure news of gasoline fires is under-reported.

NHTSA Investigating Hyundai & Kia Fires

We just reported that Hyundai Motor Group has closed its internal combustion engine development center — part of its commitment to transition to manufacturing electric vehicles. Many assume the infernal combustion engine has been perfected by now, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it is engaged in a new engineering analysis investigation that covers more than 3 million vehicles from the 2011 through 2016 model years. The agency has received 161 complaints of engine fires, some of which occurred in vehicles that had already been recalled, according to Autoblog.

Engine failures and fires have beset Hyundai and Kia vehicles since September, 2015 when the company issued an engine failure recall. Since then it has issued at least eight more recalls for a host of engine problems, according to NHTSA. The agency says it’s opening the engineering analysis to evaluate whether previous recalls covered enough vehicles. It also will monitor the effectiveness of previous recalls “as well as the long-term viability of related programs and non-safety field actions being conducted by Hyundai and Kia.

“Hyundai has taken numerous proactive actions to address engine issues, including conducting several recalls, launching a new engine monitoring technology, providing extended warranties and enhancing our customer service response,” the company said in a prepared statement. “Hyundai fosters a culture of transparency and accountability as the safety of our customers is the top priority in everything we do.”

The vehicle fires involve the following engines used in many Hyundai and Kia models: Theta II GDI, Theta II MPI, Theta II MPI hybrid, Nu GDI, and Gamma GDI. Models covered include the Hyundai Sonata, Santa Fe, and Elantra, as well as the Kia Sorento, Rio, Optima, and Soul. Model years covered are 2011 through 2016. The agency says three people have reported eye and burn injuries that did not require medical treatment.

In November 2020, NHTSA announced that Kia and Hyundai must pay $137 million in fines and for safety improvements because they moved too slowly to recall more than 1 million vehicles with engines that can fail. The fines resolve a previous probe into the companies’ behavior involving recalls of multiple models dating to the 2011 model year.

The Takeaway

The point of reporting the new NHTSA probe is to offset some of the latest press reports about EV battery fires. Yes, some batteries have caught fire and that is a proper concern for drivers and safety agencies like NHTSA. But many, many, many more vehicle fires occur every day of the year that involve gasoline powered cars. The point of this is not to deny that battery fires exist but rather to provide some perspective about the extent of the problem.

Battery fires, though serious, are not a “The sky is falling. We must run and tell the king” type of thing. Nearly 40,000 Americans have been slaughtered on US roads and highways this year. Driving is dangerous, even though it is routine for most of us. Maybe we all need to calm down a bit and keep the battery fire subject in perspective. Those fires do happen and they are a concern, but they get all the press while gasoline fires in conventional cars are ignored. We just wanted to set the record straight.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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