[UPDATED] GM announces recall after a dozen Bolt EV Fires; 6 key questions with answers from GM

GM has announced a new recall N212343880 after a dozen reported fires in a little more than a year, and at least two fires this month that had their “final” software fix in place. Here’s what you need to know, and the major questions with some updated answers from GM.

GM again exploded into the mainstream news last week with an announcement that it was no longer safe to charge the Chevy Bolt EV unattended and that owners should park outside and away from structures out of fire concerns. Many owners who don’t pay attention to the news were frustrated to find out this week via Facebook or other sources. Despite not being included in the announcement, GM almost silently replied on Twitter that owners should also go back to only charging to 90%, reminiscent of the original recall late last year.

This all started with a recall of 68,000 Bolt EVs in November of last year. While Hyundai had a similar problem and eventually elected to replace all Kona EV batteries with newer ones, GM decided that software could fix their problems. There have been at least two Bolt EV fires that had the final software update installed, which prompted GM’s recent announcement.

While some are quick to point out that electric vehicle fires are still less common than gas car fires, the opposite is actually true with the Bolt EV. Especially the 2019 model year, which is more than an order of magnitude more likely to catch fire than a 2019 gas car while parked, which can happen in the middle of the night when you’re sleeping.

This morning GM finally has an announcement:

FINAL Bolt EV Safety Recall Media Statement – July 23nd, 2021

As part of this recall, GM will replace defective battery modules in the recall population. We will notify customers when replacement parts are ready. While we prepare to conduct this recall, we are asking customers to take the following steps until the new remedy has been performed:

1. Customers should, whether or not they received the current software update, return their vehicle to the 90% state of charge limitation using Hilltop Reserve mode (for 2017-2018 model years) or Target Charge Level (for 2019 model year) mode. If customers are unable to successfully make these changes, or do not feel comfortable making these changes, we are asking them to visit their dealer to have these adjustments completed.

2. Additionally, we ask that customers charge their vehicle after each use and avoid depleting their battery below approximately 70 miles of remaining range, where possible.

3. Out of an abundance of caution, customers should continue to park their vehicles outside immediately after charging and not leave their vehicles charging overnight.

In the meantime, customers who have not visited their dealer to receive the advanced diagnostics software should visit their nearest Chevrolet EV dealer to obtain the update. After obtaining the software, customers should still limit their state of charge to 90% and otherwise follow the advice above.

We encourage owners who have additional questions or concerns to visit www.chevy.com/boltevrecall or contact the Chevrolet EV Concierge 1-833-EVCHEVY (available Monday through Friday from 8:00am – 12:00am ET; Saturday and Sunday from 12:00pm – 9:00 pm ET) or contact their preferred Chevrolet EV dealer.

GM’s official announcement on the battery fire problem

 LG blamed – two simultaneous battery defects and a bad year 

This is quite the reveal. LG has had a really bad no good horrible year.

LG Energy Solutions makes the battery for the Bolt and Kona EV, as well as has their own line of stationary storage products for residential and grid storage. First, they agreed to replace the 82,000 batteries sold to Hyundai for the Kona EV, Ioniq, and Elec City buses. Although the initial rumors were from a faulty battery separator, Hyundai later said that the problem was badly folded tabs. LG denied this, instead putting the blame back on Hyundai. GM emphatically pointed out that they use a different separator, and a different factory. Thus neither of those problems should apply to the Bolt fires. But certainly now we have questions.

Porsche recently initiated a recall on a loss of power in its Taycan LG batteries, and Ford also moved from LG in its Mustang Mach-E to SK in its Ford F-150 Lightning.

In December LG announced a US recall for some of their home battery systems. Again in March for Australia. Finally, in May, they announced a worldwide free replacement program for any units made between April 2017 and September 2018. Now there’s a class action lawsuit against LG launched a bit more than a month ago, alleging a systematic battery problem. Another class action lawsuit has been filed against Chevrolet for the same reason.

A grid storage location fire in Arizona in 2019 that caused an explosion was determined to be a single LG cell catching fire. Of particular note:

Cells taken at random from elsewhere in the battery system, and from its twin system at Festival Ranch, showed “lithium metal deposition and abnormal dendritic growth”

Put together, it’s pretty clear that LG cells have some problems.

After all this, Hyundai is switching to SK Innovation batteries for the Ioniq 5. This perhaps played into LG’s decision to settle their lawsuit against SK for $1.8 billion USD.

Their problems aren’t over either. Another Hyundai Kona EV caught fire about a month ago. It’s unclear if it had had its battery replaced; the process is expected to take more than a year due to supply constraints.

 GM is working hard, and has answers to some of our questions 

We reached out to GM for comment, and they have been very responsive this morning which is great to see. Here’s what we know so far:

The recalled population includes vehicles where cells where made at LG plant in Ochang, Korea. We don’t think every vehicle within recall population had defective batteries. The defect is the simultaneous presence of two rare manufacturing defects in the same battery cell. We believe if customers follow the steps we are suggesting while they wait to complete the new recall repair that should mitigate any battery safety risk.

GM spokesperson

The spokesperson also mentioned that GM is still working around the clock on the recall update to finalize the details.

Full text of the recall N212343880 is available here, or through checking your VIN on the Chevy Bolt EV Recall website.

 The big questions, with some answers from GM 

Q: Are all you just replacing some modules, all modules, or entire batteries?

A: Up to and including all modules in the pack, if necessary.

Q: Will you replace all 2017-2019 Korean-produced batteries or just some?

A: The same vehicle population that was affected by the original recall will have replacements. While we are finalizing the repair remedy for the new recall, we will be replacing defective battery modules in the recall population. The final repair might end up including the entire pack or just defective modules or a single module. It is safe to assume that most owners will have something (i.e. module(s)) replaced.

Q: Is there going to be any more diagnostics that can detect these problems?

A: While our existing software diagnostics and battery inspections have been successful, that remedy does not appear to have been fully effective at addressing the safety risk in all vehicles.

Q: What are the two defects that were found?

A: We are unable to provide this information.

Q: How long will this recall program take?

A: We will notify customers when replacement parts are ready.

Q: What can we do to ensure that no batteries catch on fire in the meantime?

A: (Refer to the 3 points in the recall announcement text above)

 Electrek‘s take 

This is a pretty big reveal – there’s not only one but two “simultaneous” defects have been found? This either strains credibility or means that LG has a huge problem, especially in context of what has been happening with LG lately.

We do have to applaud GM for moving on this. While it may seem like three weeks from these latest two fires is a long time, remember how slow big companies move. The last recall investigation took about five weeks from when NHTSA opened an investigation to announcing it, and then took six months before we had an answer. This is a relatively short period of time.

We also should commend GM on their communication this morning. This is obviously a huge deal that has a lot of moving pieces, and GM has been very responsive and discussing things with us this morning. While we don’t have complete answers yet, everyone is working as quickly as they can.

It’s great that it sounds like GM will be doing at least some replacements on every pack. Hopefully this means that if the module is not determined to be safe, it will be replaced.

Having said all this: considering the risk, especially to early 2019 Model Year owners, it’s understandable if owners are still anxious. The May 1st fire was reportedly only charged to about 70%, so it’s unclear if limiting to 90% will help. If the damage inside the battery has already been done, it’s just a matter of time until more fires occur. Hopefully GM can move fast with their inspections and replacements.

Avoiding deep discharges is also curious – that’s a pattern that we found and reported on several times. Seventy miles is somewhere around 30% charge, so limiting to 90% charge means we’re down to 60% usable capacity. It’s unclear if this will actually prevent fires.

It’s also unclear how they’re going to determine which cells have the problems. Maybe the latest three fires will give them that, but they’ve had 13 months and a dozen fires to investigate. It’s been eight months since the recall was first announced. If they haven’t been able to figure it out since then, how much longer is it going to take and what are they going to be able to find now?

Most importantly – how long is all of this going to take, and will these precautions prevent more fires and keep owners safe in the meantime?

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Jacquelin Burkhammer

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