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Electric vehicles catching fire costing automakers billions in recalls

  • Automakers spending billions to make EVs are having to recall vehicles due to fires, 
  • These issues can range from vehicle fires and loss of power to car not starting to recalls. Problems involving batteries can be especially expensive.
  • Wall Street’s earnings expectations were disappointed by GM’s last week results. This was largely due to a $800 million recall of Chevrolet Bolt EV after several fires.

The Vermont State Police released this photo of the 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV that caught fire on July 1, 2021 in the driveway of state Rep. Timothy Briglin, a Democrat.

Automobile manufacturers are spending billions to switch to greener, cleaner battery-powered cars. But the new technology comes with a steeper price: Vehicle fires, recalls and sudden power loss.

The learning curve with batteries is steep for traditional automakers, and battery technology remains challenging even for Tesla, which has faced similar issues. Automakers are keen to embrace new technology, with President Joe Biden pushing for 50% of new car sales to go electric by 2030. This plan will likely be accompanied with billions in tax incentives.

Although costly recalls can be made in older vehicles with internal combustion engines are common, the most critical areas for electric vehicles are software or batteries. These are two crucial areas that have been overlooked by Detroit automakers.

General Motors expands recall on the Chevy Bolt

Doug Betts, president at J.D., stated that “anytime you enter a new area in technology, there are more to learn than what you already know.” CNBC was told by Power’s automotive division. “There are risks and there are lessons to be learned.”

Already, the problems are showing up in corporate balance sheets. The three high-profile recalls of automakers General Motors, Hyundai Motor, and Ford Motor in the last year involved about 132,500 electric cars. They cost $2.2 billion. Most recently, GM said it would spend $800 million on a recall of its Chevrolet Bolt EV following several reported fires due to two “rare manufacturing defects” in the lithium-ion battery cells in the vehicle’s battery pack.

Automotive industry recalls are quite common, especially for newer vehicles. This is one reason why vehicles with the latest technologies perform poorly in certain J.D. Power studies.

“When you switch from gas to electricity, there will be a whole new set if problems that you have to address, and we just need to figure out how we can deal with those issues that we don’t know about in the past,” stated Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights.

Recently, there have been:

  • GM last month issued a second recall of its 2017-2019 Chevrolet Bolt EVs after at least two of the electric vehicles that were repaired for a previous problem erupted into flames. The automaker said that officials with GM and LG Energy Solution, which supplies the vehicle’s battery cells, identified a second “rare manufacturing defect” in the EVs that increases the risk of fire. The recall, worth $800 million, covers 69,000 cars worldwide, with nearly 51,000 in the U.S.
  • Porsche recalled the Taycan, its flagship EV, due to a software problem that caused the vehicle to completely lose power while driving.
  • In April, Ford Motor said a “small number” of early customers of its Mustang Mach-E crossover EV reported the 12-volt batteries in their vehicles wouldn’t charge, preventing those cars from operating. Ford claimed it was software related.Ford Europe last year recalls approximately 20,500 Kuga plug in hybrid crossovers. The recall was due to concerns about the possibility that the vehicle’s battery packs could overheat, causing a fire. The automaker was fined $400 million.
  • Hyundai Motor earlier this year said it would spend $900 million for a recall following fires in 15 of its Kona EVs.
  • BMW, Volvo, and other EV manufacturers have also recalled plug-in hybrids due to problems with their battery systems.

Betts, who has worked at Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, and Apple over the years, stated that he believes that legacy automakers will solve such problems by releasing more electric cars. It’s only a matter time, he said.

GM issues warning following eight reported Chevy Bolt fires

He said, “I wouldn’t say that traditional OEMs [original equipment makers] have had more trouble than Tesla.” There have been fires also with Teslas. They have more experience, obviously.”


While Tesla has avoided massive recalls of its EVs due to battery issues, litigation and investigations by federal officials in the U.S. and Norway could spell trouble for the company.

In October 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began an investigation into Tesla’s high voltage batteries.

According to the local fire chief and the attorneys representing the driver, the Tesla Model S Plaid caught on fire while the driver was driving, on June 29, 2021 in Haverford, Pennsylvania

Geragos & Geragos

NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation received the petition alleging that Tesla had released one or more software upgrades to fix and conceal a possible defect that could cause non-crash fires within affected battery packs.

Edward Chen, a California-based attorney, filed the petition and also filed a class action complaint against Tesla in August 2019. While Tesla recently agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle the lawsuit, NHTSA’s investigation remains open.

After the settlement, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter:

Fish v. Tesla Inc. is another class-action lawsuit that has been proposed in California. It alleges that Tesla intentionally overstated high-voltage battery capacity and used remote “battery-health checks” and software upgrades to hide battery degradation and deny owners battery repairs to which they were entitled.

According to the complaint, the Tesla Model S 2014 of the plaintiff lost more than half its range in just six years. It dropped to a range of 144 miles on a full battery from a range of 265 miles when it was first purchased.

The battery complaints in the U.S. were similar to one in Norway in which more than 30 Tesla drivers told the courts that a 2019 software update slashed their Teslas’ battery life, decreased the range and lengthened the time the cars took to charge, according to Norwegian newspaper Nettavisen.

Preliminarily, the court ruled in favor of the owners. It told Tesla that it could have to pay customers affected due to the battery throttling software up $16,000 each. This could be a $163 million payout.

NTSB will examine Tesla Model S in the fire

Musk stated that it was more difficult than anticipated to develop new versions of Tesla’s Model S and X, the company’s most expensive vehicles. This included the newly released Model S Plaid, and quite a bit of work to ensure the safety of the new S/X battery.

Tesla didn’t respond to inquiries about federal allegations or inquiries. Tesla has not yet delivered the Model X luxury SUV and delayed many Model S deliveries to customers this year.


Vehicle fires are quite common. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 212,500 vehicle fires that caused 560 civilian deaths, 1,500 civilian injuries and $1.9 billion in direct property damage in the U.S. in 2018.

EVs still make up only 2% to 3% annually of all new vehicle sales in the U.S., but most of these fires didn’t involve them. Automakers and suppliers of battery cells will have to be very careful when making battery-electric vehicles.

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General Motors recalls 2017-2019 Chevy Bolts because of fire potential

Abuelsamid stated that “the manufacturing processes will really need to be tightened up.” It’s necessary to deal with the behavior of batteries. They are sensitive to heat and contamination. They are very sensitive.”

Even a small spark from welding can lead to serious problems in battery cells.

Experts are still trying determine EV fire incident rate rates. Data is difficult to gather from different fire departments. Fleet Auto News reported that 2019 London Fire Brigade records suggest, based on a small local sampling, “an incident rate of 0.04% for petrol and diesel car fires, while the rate for plug-in vehicle is more than double at 0.1%.”

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