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Battery Fires and Range Fury – EV Battery Recalls

Chevy Bolt Battery Photo by Jeffery Sauger for General Motors, April 5, 2016

We bought our 2018 Chevy Bolt in 2018, feeling assured the 238-mile range advertised for the vehicle would meet our daily needs and make our most common weekend trips. Knowing Electrify America was making steady progress on installing DC fast chargers on interstates from coast-to-coast, we figured the Bolt would also allow cross-country trips on the rarer occasions we needed to make them.

Battery and Range – What You Expect

Therefore, our decision to buy the car was based on two things: the size of the battery and how the battery management system (BMS) functioned.

  • The size of the battery determines the maximum distance you can travel between charging stops.
    • For the Bolt, that distance is about 238 miles in mild weather, with no extremes of cold or hot temperatures.
  • The BMS determines (among other things) how often you can use a DC fast charger each day and during periods of high or low temperatures.
    • The Bolt’s BMS includes a liquid cooling system. When you use a DC fast charger to add electricity to your car’s battery, the battery’s temperature increases. The liquid cooling cools the battery quickly enough it can accept another full charge by the time you need one. You can DC fast charge multiple times a day, regardless of the outdoor temperature.
    • In contrast, the 2018 Nissan Leaf used only air cooling. It could not cool the battery fast enough to allow more than one fast charge a day on a hot summer day. So range is significantly limited on hot summer days.

What Chevy Bolt, Kona Electric and Ioniq Electric Owners Got

Our Chevy Bolt Story

On November 13, 2020, six weeks after we returned from our 3,200 mile round-trip road trip from Durango, CO to the top of Michigan’s mitten, Chevy recalled our Bolt due to concerns about the battery catching fire.

Chevy recalled a “select number” of 2017-2019 Chevy Bolts built with:

“high voltage batteries produced at LG Chem’s Ochang, Korea facility that may pose a risk of fire when charged to full or very close to full, capacity. As an interim remedy, dealers will reprogram the hybrid propulsion control module 2 (HPCM2) to limit full charge to 90%.”

https://my.chevrolet.com/how-to-support/safety/boltevrecall

We had DC fast charged four or five times a day for each of the 3 days of the trip both coming and going. At several of those charging stops, we’d had to charge to greater than 90% so we could get to the next DC fast charger with some cushion.

No one wants to consider being trapped in their car, trying to slow down from highway speeds so you can bail out because your car is on fire. (Know that fires are far more likely in petrol-powered cars than EVs.) If we’d had to stop more frequently, what was already a really long trip due to charging stops would’ve been even longer.

Chevy’s interim fix is a BMS modification. We got the car reprogrammed right away, and as of 3/2/21, we’re still waiting to hear what the final fix will be.

Two things every EV owner should be aware of when it comes to battery-related recalls:

The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) initiates recalls for SAFETY reasons.

A recall is issued when a manufacturer or NHTSA determines that a vehicle, equipment, car seat, or tire creates an unreasonable safety risk or fails to meet minimum safety standards.

https://www.nhtsa.gov/recalls
  1. In other words, under federal law, there is no protection for EV owners if a safety fix causes a reduction in vehicle range.
  2. If Chevy proves limiting the charge capacity to 90% fixes the safety issue, the NHTSA recall can be closed if that limit is made permanent by the BMS software. Owners would have to band together and sue based on the loss in value of the car due its reduced range. It seems unlikely that after the lawyers were paid there would be much left for those of us still owning these vehicles.

Finding Fault: Battery Manufacturer or Car (BMS) Maker?

Chevy Bolt Not Alone with Battery Fires

The cause for the fire hazard in the Chevy Bolt is not yet settled. The Hyundai Kona Electric and Ioniq Electric are also on recall for battery fires right now, with batteries also manufactured by LG Energy Solutions, though at a Chinese facility.

  • Hyundai has claimed the fires were caused by defective manufacturing (a misalignment of an anode tab) of some battery cells on LG’s part.
  • GM (Chevrolet) has stressed the Bolts’ batteries use a different cell separator than Hyundai and so the two recalls are unrelated.

On 2/24/21, LG stepped into the fray. In a statement on the Kona EV recall, LG states the Korean agency responsible for confirming the cause of the fires has not been able to confirm the problem is misalignment of the anode tab. They claim Hyundai misapplied the BMS fast charging logic proposed by LG. They are cooperating with the “relevant authorities” to discover if that had any connection to the fires. LG also says damage to the batteries’ cell separators has been confirmed as unrelated to the fires by a joint investigation team.

So, for Chevy and Hyundai, and Bolt, Kona and Ioniq owners, the question is: Do the batteries need to be replaced or is it a BMS software fix?

Hyundai has had more fires in their affected vehicles and their recall covers a larger number of vehicles. Rumors are circulating that for Hyundai, all battery packs may need to be replaced. Kona Electric owners are suing for depreciation the issue has caused. Chevy owners haven’t organized on that front yet, but I would not try to sell or trade in our Bolt until this issue is resolved. I think most buyers would hesitate to buy a Bolt affected by this recall.

How do you Fix it? What Chevy Says

I called the Chevy EV concierge on 2/27/21 after reading the following on Chevy’s Bolt Recall webpage:

A team of GM engineers has made substantial progress in identifying the root cause and potential remedies for this issue. They are in the process of validating state-of-the-art software that can diagnose potential issues early and restore 100% charge capability. A final remedy for this recall is anticipated for April 2021. Until that time, if you have not already done so, we recommend scheduling a service appointment with your dealership to update the vehicle’s battery software to automatically limit the maximum state of charge to 90 percent.

https://my.chevrolet.com/how-to-support/safety/boltevrecall

I asked the concierge how a software fix (a BMS fix) would solve the problem. Would it detect changes within the battery and provide a warning to the owner if changes occurred which might lead to a fire? Then the battery could be repaired or replaced before a fire could happen?

The concierge said it has not yet been determined the final fix will be software. He said it hadn’t gotten to the point of even discussing if a warning system would used or required. They don’t yet know if it will be a software fix or a battery replacement. We might find out earlier what the fix will be, but the fix won’t actually be available until April 2021.

It seems GM appreciates the importance of maintaining the range promised to buyers at the time the vehicle was purchased. A ten percent range reduction may not sound like much to a judge behind a bench, but when you’re sitting in the dark, gravel parking lot in front of the I-70 diner in Flager, CO at 11 PM, hanging in there for yet another 20 minutes to be sure you make it to your motel in Colorado Springs two hours away, it seems like an awful lot indeed. GM would do well to keep their EV early adopters in mind as they plan for their all electric future. I hope they won’t leave us furious with the cure to this recall, whether it be for the battery or the BMS.

For good, in-depth reporting on this issue, check in at InsideEVs.com where reporter Gustavo Henrique Ruffo has been following the issue closely.

Also see: https://aju.news/en/kona-recall-was-decided-but-hyundai-motor-lg-inevitable-conflict-over-responsibility-and-cost.html

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Can you drive from SW Colorado to Michigan in a 2018 Battery Powered Chevy Bolt? YES YOU CAN! Part II

As promised, here are answers to the more basic questions about doing a long-distance road trip in a mid-distance, 235-mile range, Chevy Bolt EV.

Starting the final leg with 75% State of Charge.

Was it cheaper than paying for gas would’ve been?

At home, where DC fast charging isn’t necessary for us, driving the Bolt is about 40% less expensive to fuel than using gasoline for a comparable car. On this 1,600 mile trip, we charged four to five times a day on high voltage, DC fast chargers. Assuming we would’ve driven a car getting 30 mpg, it cost 15% more than we would have paid at gas stations in the Midwest, where gas was running about $2.10/gallon. The electric fuel cost us $135 for the one-way trip, about $20 more than gas. We charged overnight at hotels for free on two nights, waking up with a full tank.

In Iowa, local electric companies MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy provided free fast charging at all their stations. We used two of them. These were slower rate fast-chargers, with top potential of 50 kW, unlike the 62.5 kW we would start with from the Electrify America chargers. They were pleasantly located with grassy areas and picnic tables nearby.

Avoca, IA at a Casey’s General Store

How much extra time did it add to the trip?

On the days when we drove more than 500 miles (10-11 hours of driving time), we spent four to five hours charging at four to five different fast chargers. Yes, that is a lot of time. The 2018 Chevy Bolt is slow to accept charge. No matter how fast a charger is able to provide electricity, the 2018 Bolt will accept a maximum of about 53 kW. It drops off in a step-wise fashion after the battery gets 55% full until it gets down to 25 kW when the battery is at 80%.

This image is from https://allev.info/2020/03/chevy-bolt-2020-dcfc-charge-curve/ and is for the 2019 and 2020 Chevy Bolts.

In contrast, a Tesla Model 3 can take a maximum of over 100 kW, depending on the power of the charger being used. Over a 30-minute Tesla Supercharger session it will accept power at an average of 85 kW. That said, the Model 3 long range version cost about 50% more than a Chevy Bolt in 2018 when Chevys’ were still getting the full federal tax credit while Teslas’ was phasing out.

Driving the Bolt for this trip was inconvenient. It was not pleasant to spend more than an hour in a Walmart parking lot 100 feet down-wind from a truck-stop hosting at least 50 idling semi trucks. Yes, a lot of time is spent in big parking lots on today’s cross-country EV road trips.

Can you see the DCFC station in this picture? Look to the left, past the lovely garden. It’s the orange and white thing past the fence.

However, there were a fair number of very pleasant charger locations. There was the brand-new station in Saugatuck, MI, where the parking lot was shaded by thick deciduous forest. The charger there faced an open, grassy sculpture garden and was next to a REALLY good breakfast restaurant.

In the case of the free Alliant Energy charger at Grinnell, Iowa, we were able to park about 2 miles from the freeway at a quiet Alliant office surrounded by corn fields and several acres of preserved prairie with a walking path mowed around it. We spent about 75 minutes there, walking and picnicking, wanting to fill up a bit more than usual because it was our last fast-charger stop of the day.

While at this stop, in the nearby fields we noticed all the corn, which was still green and had been quite tall, was laying down flat on the ground with fat, full ears still attached, unharvested. It turned out three weeks before our visit an extreme straight-line windstorm with winds up to 126 mph tore through a large section of central Iowa. It destroyed 7- to 8-million acres of corn and beans. It crushed many empty silos, setting the state’s farmers up for problems finding grain storage this fall. Four people were killed. 1.9 million people across several states lost power, some for as long as thirteen days.

If you’re curious about what it was like to be hunkered down in a suburban Iowa home during this storm, take a look at this video. Note the contrast of the idyllic scene at the beginning with what happens after minute 14. Not very pleasant.

This extreme weather event was more than inconvenient for Iowans. It threatened life and livelihood. Climate events of this magnitude are becoming so common, it barely made the news. We are at the point where government action has taken too long to adequately slow emissions down. Individual actions, such as buying an EV if you can afford it and turning a long 2-day road trip into a more relaxed 3-day road trip, are among the most immediate actions one can take to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Were the charging stations working and available?

In short, yes. They were all working, though we had significant difficulty getting the Electrify America (EA) fast chargers to initiate charging at the Flagler, Colorado and Colby, Kansas locations. We were eventually able to charge at all of them, but only after spending 20-30 minutes on the phone with an EA representative. That was very frustrating knowing we had to spend another 45 minutes to an hour at the station once the charging finally started. EA also, through an error in their software, double-charged us at every station on our trip out. The problem was fixed by the time we returned home a couple weeks later, and EA completely refunded all the fees for those charging stations. The effect of those refunds is not reflected in the $135 spent on electricity given above. That value is the cost on the way back when we were charged the correct amount at all the EA stations.

What would we do if we arrived at a charger to find it in use by someone else?

This did not happen to us on this trip. The fast-chargers we stopped at usually had room to charge two to six vehicles at a time. We only had even one car pull in while we were charging on three occasions.

While we never had to wait to charge, we did block a station for another person at the single fast-charger station on the Tollway south of Chicago for about half an hour. It was a 50 kW unit, so slower to charge anyway, and we needed enough charge to make a long jump to the next station which was located in Michigan. As we lounged on the grass under a shade tree, we watched a guy pace back and forth for half an hour waiting for us to be finished. It was a friendly encounter, but we felt bad about it, knowing we’d be sad to be in his shoes with the final 300 miles to go in our trip.

A portion of the Illinois DCFC desert, just south of Chicago on the I-80, I-294, I-90 Interstate corridor. There is a DCFC in Joliet, but it has been extremely unreliable since it was installed in early 2020. How do you find out how reliable a station is or has been? Check www.Plugshare.org, and share your experiences there, too!

Let me take this moment to beg whoever is empowered to increase the availability of faster public fast chargers in south-east Illinois and north-west Indiana, please get busy. After having no trouble finding fast-chargers across Nebraska and Iowa, it was a slap to have so few options on this urban major interstate route. Between Geneseo, Illinois and Michigan City, Indiana, over almost 200 miles there is only one non-Tesla fast charger available and in working order, and it is a single, slow 50 kW unit at a Tollway rest stop. ComEd and Indiana Gas & Electric, can you help get some public EV fast-chargers on I-94 please?

How was it better than a long trip in a gas-powered car?

There were some pleasant surprises. The EV trip was three days of more relaxed driving. The pace was easier to take. We used the stops to stretch our legs walking and to eat without having crumbs fall in our laps. The trip felt less stressful because we weren’t pushing for maximum miles. We arrived at our destination less achy and irritable. The inconvenience was vanishingly small when compared to the climate-related catastrophes being suffered by people coast-to-coast on a now yearly basis.

Person-by-person, mile-by-mile we can make a difference. YOU CAN DO IT!

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Can you drive from SW Colorado to Michigan in a 2018 Battery Powered Chevy Bolt? YES YOU CAN! Part I

This post is divided in two parts: PART 1- Why do it? And PART 2 – Answers to the basic questions of how much time did charging add to the trip? What if all the charging stations are taken when you show up? How much did the cost compare to gas?

On August 28 of this year, 2020, the day after Hurricane Laura mowed into Louisiana, my husband and I started a 1,600 mile road trip from Durango, Colorado to Beulah, Michigan driving our all-electric 2018 Chevy Bolt. A couple weeks later, we’d have to turn around and do it again to come home. In 2018, the trip would not have been possible. The fast charging infrastructure we used was installed in 2019 and 2020, so it felt like an adventure.

Iowa, where wind energy produces 42% of the state’s electricity, the highest of any state.
  • How would the costs measure up?
  • Would the charging stations be working and available?
  • How much extra time would it add to the trip?
  • What would we do if we arrived at a charger to find it in use by someone else?

The answers to all these questions will be provided in Part 2 of this post, which will be published a couple days after this one. For now, let’s start with more basic questions:

  • “WHY?” Why would anyone try to do that now?
  • Doesn’t it take SO much longer with the charging stops?
  • I can’t buy an EV until my current car rusts into a pile of dust, so isn’t it a waste of money to buy an all-electric vehicle before the vehicle technology and charging infrastructure are more mature and built up?

I can’t answer those questions for you, but I can tell you a bit about me and why I did it. I graduated in 2000 with a master’s degree in geology, and I’ve worked the past twenty years as an air quality specialist, with seven of those years doing greenhouse gas emission inventories for industry. I’m a scientist at heart. I strongly believe analyzing empirical data, when it’s available, is really good input to base decisions on.  However, also as a scientist, I DO mean to sound alarmist about climate change and Americans’ contribution to it from their traveling habits.

Hurricanes have become stronger worldwide during the past four decades, an analysis of observational data shows, supporting what theory and computer models have long suggested: climate change is making these storms more intense and destructive.

Henry Fountain in the New York Times, May 18, 2020

Global warming is likely worse than you think, because most climate scientists don’t want to sound alarmist. They are even-minded, non-biased scientists, after all. So what you hear about in the media and from the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) reports about climate change are actually the low end, least destructive scenarios of what climate models predict will happen if we continue at our current rate of emitting greenhouse gas emissions. We need to slam the brakes on these emissions.

Massive forest fires in California redden the sky in Michigan, 2,400 miles away, July 8, 2020. You can run, but you can’t hide from the effects of climate change.

We are at the point where government action has taken too long to adequately slow emissions down.  Individual actions such as buying an EV if you can afford it are among the most important, immediate steps we can take to lower our personal greenhouse gas emissions and signal our governments we are ready to step up to the challenge of slowing climate change.

Nope. Didn’t carry all that in on our backs.

As a western US outdoors-loving environmentalist, over the last 25 years this knowledge has been the root of a fair amount of psychological stress for me, triggered by cognitive dissonance. I’ve lost count of the number of river trips I’ve been on, serviced by one or more large pick-up trucks traveling several hundred miles carrying hundreds of pounds of rafts, waterproof boxes of food and gear for groups of up to twenty peoples’ pleasure. And I’m a kayaker! I don’t really need that much gear to go down a wild river, but it sure is nice to have rafts carrying friends and coolers of cold beer along. However, I have also known for more than 25 years how harmful this way of loving the wilderness is. Traveling long distances at high speeds in either cars, trucks or airplanes fueled by fossil fuels creates larger amounts of greenhouse gas than any other thing individuals do.

So in early 2017, when Nissan offered their all-electric, 136-mile range Leaf at a VERY reasonable price, I figured we had to do it. Finally, the world came around to creating electric cars which cut emissions so significantly that regardless of any inconvenience, we had to step up and early adopt.

Sweet lil’ EV. So sweet.

The Leaf was a great commuter car. I was surprised at how nice it was to never have to stop at a gas station as part of my routine. Never. I just plugged it in at home when needed (two or three times a week in my case), and it would charge overnight. When the opportunity to buy a higher range (235 miles) Chevy Bolt came up, we jumped on it. We wanted to use an EV for more of our less frequent, middle-distance trips. We owed the world something for all the fossil-fuel enabled pleasure we’d taken. We could finally start paying it back.

And, as this round-trip to Michigan proved, you pay more than just money to settle a greenhouse gas emissions debt. However, the slower rate of travel had some benefits, too. Tune in to PART 2 of this post for answers to questions posed at the beginning of this post.

Hurricane Laura also traveled generally to the north-east as we drove on those August 2020 days. It killed fourteen people, half of them by carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of generators indoors. Power was knocked out for days for 360,000 people. As late as September 2, tanker access to liquid natural gas plants and oil refineries was still limited by debris and salvage operations in the waterways which lead to those plants.

Hurricane Laura, which one was that? There were so many this year. And so many last year. It sucks to have your home destroyed by fire or hurricane. Not so much to spend a couple thousand more for a car, and a bit more time fueling your vehicle.

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