On June 13, a 26-year-old Arizona woman woke up to find her 2017 Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle charger’s adaptor smoking and melted in her home garage.
She was alarmed. She said she had not received any notice from her dealer or General Motors of a recall on her car. GM had first issued a recall on 68,000 of the 2017 through 2019 model year cars last November.
“You could definitely smell the burning and the wall I plug it into had burn marks up it and all the metal around the adaptor had melted,” the woman said. “We didn’t know if the fire was out or if it was still burning. I Googled it and that’s when I saw all the articles about the Bolt fires.”
From that day forward, she said, she and her mother have called GM customer care, the EV hotline, her Chevrolet dealer and the Chevrolet concierge nearly daily. But they are left frustrated because there has been no resolution.
“It’s the scariness and the fear of, ‘Will I be able to charge my car? Will I make it work?’ ” she said, noting she has a 50-mile roundtrip commute. “Every day is unknown now. Before I could charge my car at home and have it be fully charged. So it’s been stressful. I charge my car at the public library, in case the car sets on fire again.”
The woman, who bought the car new in November 2017, asked to not be named to protect her privacy and personal safety. But she’s a young professional and her family has traditionally bought Chevy vehicles. She wanted the Bolt — and still wants an EV —because she loved the car and she cares about the environment.
The second global recall was two weeks ago after two more Bolts caught fire recently. After that recall, the woman said she received four notices from her dealer.
A class action lawsuit filed earlier this year in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan alleges that Chevrolet Bolt owners are not receiving the range they paid for because GM recommends owners not fully charge the batteries. The lawsuit alleges that GM may have concealed widespread defects in the batteries suspected of causing the Bolts to catch fire. On Friday, a GM spokesman said, “we are not going to comment on ongoing litigation.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records posted online for the 2017 Bolts, there have been two recalls and 153 related complaints. In 2018, there were three recalls and 25 associated complaints. And for the 2019 model year, there have been four recalls and 78 complaints.
GM engineers are scrambling to find a fix that will keep the cars from catching on fire and GM says it is doing everything it can to appease Bolt customers.
“GM and LG engineers are working around the clock on a fix,” GM spokesman Dan Flores told the Free Press on Monday. “We understand this second recall is a huge inconvenience for our customers. All I can do is apologize. We are working around the clock. We want to get it done and get the procedure to dealers as soon as we can.”
He could not speak to the Arizona woman’s case because he was not familiar with it, but he said until there is a fix, customers should follow GM’s safety procedures, including not parking the car in their home garage and keeping it at only a 90% state of charge. GM said those measures should reduce any risks and the vehicle “should be safe to drive.”
“If someone is not satisfied with that or wants a buyback or trade-in to a different vehicle, we are looking at that on a case-by-case basis,” Flores said.
The Arizona woman wants GM to find her a different car or put in a new battery that assures her the car won’t go up in flames.
“To me a resolution would be just to be able to work with GM,” the woman said. “Neither me or my mom have had luck with finding anyone who’s helpful.”
Short of a fix, she would like GM to make a reasonable offer for her car that she paid close to $40,000 for, an offer that would include the $687 she paid for the charger and now charred adaptor.
As far as getting a refund for the car, every state’s “Lemon Laws” are different, said Erik Gordon, business and law professor at University of Michigan. In Michigan, he said, the law offer two ways to get a refund on a car purchase.
- If the problem persists after a “reasonable number of attempts to repair it,” a person is entitled to a refund. It’s presumed that four attempts to repair the same problem within two years crosses the reasonable line.
- If the vehicle is out-of-service for 30 or more days during the term of its warranty or during the first year after its delivery, whichever comes first.
Most lemon laws follow state guidelines, Gordon said, because the federal lemon law guidelines are too vague.
According to the federal law, Gordon said, “if you’ve been given a full warranty, they’re supposed to honor the warranty and repair the vehicle within a reasonable amount of time, but it doesn’t define a reasonable amount of time or a reasonable amount of times to repair it,” Gordon said. “So if you go through the federal law or federal courts, you just don’t know if you’ll win or lose.”
Losing ground in the EV race?
But the legal issue is not what’s at stake for GM, Gordon said, it’s their reputation with customers and risk in the stock market if it doesn’t get a handle on the problems with the Bolts.
“GM is in the court of public opinion where their product looks to people to be so unsafe that you better leave it outside or else it’ll burn your house down,” Gordon said. “It’s not a courtroom where they have to provide evidence, it’s the court of customer opinion.”
Then, there’s Wall Street.
“If equity analysts and investors look at this as a signal that, for all of the announcements GM has made, they can’t produce a reliable EV and they can’t figure out how to fix it, that is not good for your stock price,” Gordon said.
It’s not good for GM’s bottom line either. The Bolt recall has already cost GM $800 million, the automaker said Wednesday in its second quarter earnings report. That cost made up the bulk of GM’s $1.3 billion in warranty expenses in the quarter. GM still had a good quarter, despite a global shortage of semiconductor chips, reporting net income of $2.8 billion, compared with a net loss of $738 million in the year-ago period.
But GM does not want to lose current or future EV customers over these recalls, Flores said. The company spokesman noted that the 2020 and 2021 Bolts use different batteries than those affected by the recall and there have been no problems with the 2020-21 model year cars. Likewise, the 30 new EVs GM promises to launch by 2025 will operate on GM’s new Ultium battery platform.
“The GMC Hummer EV pickup that will be launched later this year has battery technology that’s two generations beyond the batteries being recalled,” Flores said. “But I am not downplaying it, if they bought these vehicles brand new, they expect to not have a problem with the batteries and we’re working as fast as we can to fix it.”
Seven Bolts burn
In November, GM issued the first recall on all the 68,000 2017-19 model year Bolts because the vehicles potentially posed a fire risk.
GM said at the time the batteries in five vehicles caught fire, and injured two people with smoke inhalation. According to GM’s initial investigation, the five Bolts all had the high-voltage batteries made by LG Chem’s Ochang, South Korea, facility.
Another commonality among the five vehicles was they were at full charge or right below that when they caught fire. GM warned owners of those vehicles that until dealers can make a software fix, the owners should reset their batteries to a maximum of 90% charge to lessen the risk of the car catching fire. If they cannot do that, GM advised owners to keep their parked cars away from their garage or carport.
By April, GM engineers said they’d figured out how to fix the battery problem. They developed diagnostic software to look for anomalies in the batteries. If problems are found, the company will replace faulty parts of the battery. The software was available to the Bolt owners by the end of May.
But since that first recall, there have been two more Bolt fires. Earlier this month, GM again warned owners of the same Bolt EVs not to park the vehicles in the garage.
“One of the fires, we can confirm, was a battery fire,” Flores said. “It was in Vermont and we confirmed that the fire was battery-related and that customer did have the recall software performed and did everything he was supposed to do.”
The 2019 Bolt that caught fire belonged to Vermont state Rep. Tim Briglin, the Associated Press reported. He drove it to work and back home on June 30, depleting the battery to around 10% of its range. He plugged it into a 240-volt outdoor charger that evening and left the Bolt in his driveway.
Around 6:30 a.m. the next day, Briglin saw smoke coming from the rear of the car and called the fire department. Only some nearby plants were damaged.
The other EV that caught fire was in New Jersey. GM could not confirm the cause of that fire because the Bolt was on a flatbed truck which was later stolen. That Bolt has not been found.
GM safety recommendations
The existing software fix GM performed on the Bolts during the first recall has been largely successful, Flores said, but “not fully effective” to eliminate fire risk, since there was at least one more fire related to the battery.
“We don’t want any more fires, we don’t want customers to have to deal with this,” Flores said. “We don’t have the specific fix determined yet, but if you do A, B and C, we believe you’re effectively reducing the risk of a fire.”
By “A, B and C” he means:
- Return the vehicle to the 90% state of charge limitation using Hilltop Reserve mode (for 2017-18 model years) or Target Charge Level mode (for 2019 model year).
- Charge the vehicle after each use and avoid depleting the battery below 70 miles of remaining range.
- Park the vehicle outside immediately after charging and do not leave the vehicle charging overnight.
- Customers who have not received the advanced diagnostics software should visit their dealer to get the update. After obtaining the software, limit the state of charge to 90% and follow the advice above.
The Arizona woman said she is following all the recommendations, but the charging restrictions add to her stress.
“You can only charge it up to 90% and not go below 70 miles, which limits my mileage,” she said. “If I go to work and then want to visit family afterward, I burn through that charge in a day.”
And GM’s argument that the recalls won’t damage its future EV customer base because of new and different battery technology falls flat with Gordon.
“That’s like Boeing saying, ‘Don’t worry about our 737 crashing because our Dreamliner will be different,’ ” Gordon said. “The perception is bad and you’ve got to turn that around. You don’t do that by saying, ‘Our new ones are a different technology.’ You always thought every technology would work.”
The Arizona woman said she and her mother have worked “full on” since June 13 to get a call back from GM. Finally, on July 28, her mother called GM customer care, who then patched her to the third-party claims processor and to speak to a claims agent. The women sent in all the required paperwork the agent requested that day, but she still has not received a resolution.
The Arizona woman said, “I always want to be electric. I know Chevy is coming out with more electric cars, but it’s tough going back to them after dealing with all of this.”
GM’s Flores said if a customer has an issue they should call the Chevrolet EV Concierge 833-EVCHEVY, which is available 8 a.m.-12 a.m. Monday-Friday; noon-9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Or call their dealer.
“Even one battery fire is not acceptable,” Flores said. “We’re committed to fixing the issue.”