By Ben Foldy
Auto makers are confronting a new challenge in their race to
sell more electric cars: battery-related fires leading to vehicle
recalls and safety probes.
U.S. safety regulators this month opened a probe into more than
77,000 electric Chevy Bolts made by General Motors Co. after two
owners complained of fires that appeared to have begun under the
back seat, where the battery is located.
Ford Motor Co. said last week it is delaying the U.S.
introduction of its Escape plug-in hybrid after fire concerns
surfaced this summer in similar vehicles sold in Europe.
Also, in recent weeks, Hyundai Motor Co. and BMW AG have
initiated world-wide recalls to address problems with battery fires
in plug-in models.
GM, Ford and Hyundai said that they are still investigating the
fires' causes and looking into possible remedies, and that safety
is their primary concern. BMW said that most of the cars affected
hadn't yet been sold to customers.
One Chevy Bolt fire resulted in a smoke-inhalation injury,
safety regulators say. The other three car companies say they have
had no injuries.
Researchers have said the risks of fire in an electric vehicle
are comparable to those of gas-powered cars. Additionally, analysts
say these kinds of battery-related fires are relatively rare, with
an uptick to be expected from the growing numbers of
battery-powered cars on the road.
Still, the incidents illustrate the hurdles auto manufacturers
face with electric technology, particularly in managing
energy-dense and flammable lithium-ion batteries that have
previously caused fires in laptops, tablets and other
Global car companies are racing to increase their
electric-vehicle offerings in the midst of tougher regulations that
aim to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation. Ford
has said its recall means the company must join with another auto
maker to avoid fines in Europe this year.
To meet the more-stringent requirements, the auto industry has
placed big bets on an electrified future, committing roughly $200
billion to electrification over the next four years, according to
consulting firm AlixPartners LLP.
The lithium-ion batteries in electric cars are similar to those
found in consumer electronics, which store large amounts of energy
relative to their size. But to power an automobile, there needs to
be more of them, and the demands are higher, creating a unique
"When they do fail, they bring a lot more to the party, so to
speak," said Nick Warner, principal at Energy Storage Response
Group LLC, an energy safety and testing firm in Columbus, Ohio.
While fires can occur after crashes, many of the recent
incidents are notable for involving electric vehicles that were
parked when the fire broke out.
For instance, one Chevy Bolt owner told federal regulators the
vehicle was plugged into a charger in the driveway when the blaze
started, according to the complaint posted to the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration's website. NHTSA investigators
received another complaint from a second owner and found a third
Chevy Bolt in an insurance auction lot with a similar burn
GM said that it is cooperating with the probe, which covers 2017
to 2020 model-year Bolts, and that safety is its highest priority.
The company and its supplier have together put more than 2,500
hours into safety tests of the Bolt's battery, a spokesman
Hyundai is in the process of recalling about 77,000 electric
Kona SUVs globally after about a dozen battery-related fires,
including one in a residential garage in Montreal last summer, the
Additionally, BMW said fire risks related to a quality issue at
its battery supplier have led it to recall about 27,000 plug-in
In Europe, Ford this summer recalled roughly 20,500 plug-in
hybrid SUVs and warned owners not to charge their vehicles after
reports of seven fires. The auto maker said the batteries can
overheat and vent hot gases, which can then cause other parts of
the vehicle to ignite. Ford has now delayed the launch of a similar
plug-in hybrid Escape in the U.S. into next year.
Hyundai, Ford and BMW believe the issues are related to
manufacturing defects from their battery suppliers, company
NHTSA, in a statement, said the agency has launched multiple
investigations into the potential safety issues related to fires
involving electric-vehicle batteries based on data it collects. The
agency also funds targeted research on advanced-battery technology
and participates in developing global technical regulations.
A report the agency commissioned in 2017 said that as battery
technology matures, safety risks may also increase, as
manufacturers try to maximize their performance. The report
concluded, however, that the risks of battery fires are likely
comparable to or slightly fewer than in gas-powered cars.
Still, electric-vehicle fires are a major topic in the battery
industry. Analysts say the threat of more fires looms as auto
makers face pressure to lower the costs of electric vehicles, pack
more energy-dense batteries into them and ramp up production.
The auto industry is focused on both bringing down emissions and
ensuring safety, said John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for
Automotive Innovation, the auto industry's main U.S. trade
In most cases, the issues are related to quality problems in the
manufacturing process or a failure to manage the battery's heat or
electrical energy properly, Mr. Warner said. "It could be as simple
as a zero instead of a one in a line of software," he said.
Mr. Warner and others in the battery industry, however, said the
challenges car companies face are similar to those experienced by
Sony Corp., Boeing Co. and others that have encountered setbacks
with lithium-ion batteries in their products. Eventually, the kinks
were worked out, and the technology has since become a dominant
power source, Mr. Warner said.
Write to Ben Foldy at Ben.Foldy@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 19, 2020 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)
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