Chevy Bolt EV Owners Live ‘Nightmare’ Awaiting Battery-Fire Fix
(Bloomberg) -- Since General Motor Co. recalled every Chevrolet Bolt it has built due to the risk of battery fires and warned owners not to park them in their garage, Neil Wintle has found charging his electric car to be “more than a little nerve-wracking.”
The director of a children’s nonprofit near Phoenix spent $2,000 in July to install a charger in his garage, which is just below his bedroom. Following GM’s precautions, he no longer charges his Bolt in his garage overnight and instead juices up on days he’s working from home.
“It’s really kind of disturbing knowing that right below me is a car that could catch fire,” said Wintle, a 42-year-old father of two, who purchased his Bolt nearly a year ago, shortly before the first of three recalls. “This has officially crossed the threshold into nightmare territory.”
GM’s $1.8 billion recall of about 142,000 Bolts comes at an inopportune time. The automaker is seeking to lead the auto industry’s charge into an electric future, spending $27 billion to deliver 30 plug-in models by 2025 with a goal of going all-electric by 2035. Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra has launched a campaign dubbed “Everybody In” where the automaker uses influencers like “The Tipping Point” author Malcolm Gladwell to try convince car buyers to switch to battery power.
Change-averse commuters are finally starting to show interest in EVs, with 43% of American motorists saying they would consider plugging in over the next decade, according to a recent poll by Morning Consult. President Joe Biden has amped up Washington’s support of EVs, with an executive order aimed at making half the vehicles sold in the U.S. electric by 2030 and proposing $174 billion in government spending to promote plug-ins. Indeed, as the popularity of Tesla Inc.’s Model 3 spreads and well-received models like Ford’s Mustang Mach-E and GMC Hummer roll out, the stage is being set for electric vehicles to flip from niche to mainstream.
But now all that progress is at risk, with 10 Bolts experiencing battery fires that GM has determined are linked to two manufacturing defects in the battery cell. The automaker is still working on a fix, which is why, for now, it’s telling owners not to fully charge or deplete their batteries and to park their car away from their homes. It’s promised to replace every defective Bolt battery module.
“This will absolutely have an impact on people’s desire to go electric,” Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering with the American Automobile Association, said in an interview. “An auto flambé is not something anyone wants.”
GM says it understands its owners’ frustration.
“We certainly apologize,” said Dan Flores, a company spokesman. “We have hundreds of people at both companies working around the clock to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”
Sean Graham, a Bolt owner in Toronto, has been tracking fires and counts 19 incidents so far, though GM hasn’t confirmed those are all related to the battery.
“GM has lost the trust of the owners,” said Graham, 42, an information technology professional who oversees a Bolt owners group on Facebook. “Us Bolt owners are the ones who got in on the bleeding edge of this technology. If it wasn’t for us, GM would not be able to become an all-electric company. So GM needs to do right by the owners and make sure that we are made whole.”
Graham says GM has begun to “step up” by calling out battery supplier LG Energy Solution, which was spun off by LG Chem Ltd. of South Korea last year, for manufacturing defects and by promising to replace all defective battery modules. While that and better communication lately is starting to rebuild Graham’s trust, he said it’s too late for a car-buying public that is less likely to pay attention to the brand than to blame all EVs.
“That absolutely is damaging to where we need to be as a society in terms of getting people away from gasoline,” Graham said.
GM CEO Barra sees a silver lining in the big recall, by drawing the auto industry’s attention to battery manufacturing just as it ramps up to build millions of EVs in the coming years. “The lessons learned that we have through this experience are really going benefit the entire industry,” she said in a Aug. 26 interview on Bloomberg TV.
That may be fine for the future but, for now, the Bolt is taking the reputational hit for three recalls in less than a year. Inventory of used Bolts rose 75% over the last month, while the supply of other used EVs rose 28%, according to Recurrent, a Seattle-based startup that tracks the used-EV market.
“People aren’t avoiding EVs or used EVs in general,” Scott Case, Recurrent’s CEO, said in an interview. “This tells me there is an impact on used Bolts.”
The recalls haven’t diminished Krishnan Anantharaman’s enthusiasm for his Bolt, but he recognizes how it has tarnished his car. “It used to be a point of pride that you actually drove an electric vehicle and all of a sudden there’s a stigma associated with it,” said Anantharaman, 51, a political journalist in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
Eric Porteus, 73, is looking to trade-in his Bolt. But because GM doesn’t have another EV on the market yet, any trade-in will likely be for a gasoline-powered car. He’s driving his Bolt very little lately and his daughter will no longer let him transport his grandkids in it. “I’ve told GM that I’m disillusioned and that I no longer feel safe,” said Porteus, who lives north of Albany, New York.
The automaker is buying back some Bolts on a “customer-by-customer basis,” GM’s Flores said.
In Phoenix, Bolt owner Wintle said he’s planning to reject the buyback offer he received from GM, which left him still owing money to get out of the car. He said he’s now considering legal options.
“Financially speaking,” Wintle said, “I believe at this point I’d be better off if my Bolt did catch fire.”
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