Who's Making Those EV Batteries That Are Catching on Fire?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Over the past six months, a handful of the world’s largest electric-vehicle makers have announced some of the most expensive recalls in the history of the auto industry. Investors are focused on the billions of dollars this will cost and who will foot the bill. Instead, they should be asking about the battery manufacturer at the center of it all, LG Energy Solutions, and the promise it’s selling to shareholders and car companies.
General Motors Co. this month recalled its Bolt EVs for the third time in nine months, adding 73,000 newer vehicles. The latest measure — which will cost around $1 billion, for a total of $1.8 billion — includes every Bolt electric car. That follows a Hyundai Motor Co. recall of 82,000 EVs earlier this year, at a cost of around $900 million. In both cases, faulty batteries made by LG Energy Solutions, a unit of South Korean industrial heavyweight LG Chem Ltd., have led to vehicle fires. LG said the cost of the Bolt recall would be split depending on the outcome of a joint investigation.
While it’s understandable that carmakers and their investors are focused on the costs — Hyundai did have to pick up part of the tab, and ended up taking a hit of 387 billion Korean won ($332 million) — the bigger issue is that poorly made batteries are putting people’s lives at risk. This is a result of carmakers’ impatience and seeming inability to properly assess the risks of doing business in emerging technologies — and, potentially, conducting poor due diligence on their partners.
A closer and harder look at the LG unit is warranted. It is slated to go public later this year in what could be South Korea’s biggest ever public listing, at $10 billion to $12 billion. The company is one of the largest battery suppliers for major electric vehicle models, and has rushed to expand across the world. This rapid pace of investment, possibly boosted by its parent’s complementary electronics and chemicals businesses, has allowed it to accelerate production, making LG Energy Solutions a ready and appealing partner. The company has inked deals with several automakers, including Tesla Inc., and is in a joint venture with GM to develop a proprietary battery technology central to the U.S. carmaker’s $27 billion green strategy. That means amid the scramble (and pressure) to meet regulatory standards and company targets for sales and emissions, even more LG-made batteries will be housed in cars across the world.
In the latest recalls, key components within the battery were damaged. In “rare circumstances,” the anode tab was torn and the separator was folded, GM said. Unusual as they may be, these defects increase the risk of fires. GM said it will replace the modules “out of an abundance of caution.” It’s worth noting these are the most basic of battery parts — not particularly complex, but essential. In Hyundai’s case, a government investigation found the batteries could short-circuit. Separately, another type of battery – a residential energy-storage system installed in homes and made by an LG unit in Michigan — was recalled for the second time earlier this month because it was determined to be a fire hazard.
Too few analysts and investors are asking basic questions about battery technology, manufacturing quality, or the rationale behind the choice of partners. Even after its expensive recall, Hyundai announced in July it again was partnering with LG Energy Solutions to build a $1.1 billion plant in Indonesia — one of the largest producers of nickel, a raw material — to “secure a stable supply of battery cells.” These are important signals to assess battery capacity as EV demand continues to grow. In reality, though, it’s worth wondering how “secure” these products really are.
As billions of dollars are poured into companies’ green ambitions, one-time recall costs may be seem urgent now but are easy to forget. The same can’t be said for the lives that are potentially at risk.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.
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