By on October 13, 2020

2017 Chevrolet Bolt

According to the very people trying to sell them, electric vehicles are slated to become the hottest commodity on the automotive market since the Ford Pinto, Pontiac Fiero, or Ferrari 458 Italia. But, following a swath of highly publicized fires, there’s been this creeping narrative that there may be some unaddressed safety concerns pertaining to EVs. Numerous video clips of vehicles spontaneously combusting in Asia and local media reports of phantom garage fires in North America have helped feed the story, with regulators now taking accusations of battery flambé extremely seriously.

Case in point is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s new investigation into the Chevrolet Bolt. The agency’s Office of Defects Investigation received just two complaints regarding 2018 and 2019 Bolts that were alleged to have caught fire in a similar manner. But lids were flipped when the NHTSA realized it had seen a 2017 model with a similar burn pattern working its way up through the rear seat. The group is now launching a preliminary evaluation to decide whether these were freak accidents or if the Chevy Bolt actually has a tendency to catch fire while nobody is around.

Since the mere suggestion of a specific model having safety issues is often all it takes to cement it into vehicular lore, we want to be extremely clear in saying there’s little proof of anything at this juncture. A handful of Bolts have caught fire under suspiciously similar circumstances and the NHTSA wants to make sure that it doesn’t pertain to the other 77,842 examples manufactured between 2017 and 2020.

It might also be nice for regulators to nip any EV fire hazards in the bud before they become the dominant form of personal conveyance. While reports of battery fires routinely get more media attention than the banged-up Buick Century I saw burning on the Henry Hudson Parkway over the weekend, there’s not supposed to be much of a difference in the frequency of gasoline and battery-related car fires. But regulators seem terrified that won’t remain true as more battery-driven vehicles enter the marketplace. Automakers are no less concerned because absolutely nobody wants to be the brand with the famously dangerous EVs.

General Motors informed us that it was aware of the preliminary examination and intended on cooperating with the investigation fully, as well as launching its own to make doubly sure there’s no doubt about what is/isn’t happening with the Bolt.

Automotive News, which first caught wind of investigation PE 20-016, said the NHTSA reported that “the fire damage appeared to be concentrated in the EV battery compartment area with penetration into the passenger compartment from under the rear seat,” but that nothing conclusive had been determined at this juncture.

From AN:

U.S. safety regulators will evaluate the cause of the fires as well as the scope, frequency and consequence of the alleged defect.

Most NHTSA investigations start as preliminary evaluations, where agency engineers request information from the manufacturer, including data on complaints, injuries and warranty claims. The manufacturer can also present its view regarding the alleged defect and may issue a recall.

After the evaluation, NHTSA will either close the investigation or move into the next phase. If a safety-related defect exists, according to NHTSA, the agency may send a “recall request” letter to the manufacturer.

A lot of the concerns pertain to the unique dangers of battery fires  something we recently covered following a report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) claiming most U.S. fire departments couldn’t handle them. The NTSB has been cracking down on newer automotive technologies in general but has recently focused on electric vehicle fires as manufacturers gear up to dump countless new models into various markets over the next few years.

[Image: Chevrolet]

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19 Comments on “NHTSA Launching Investigation Into Chevy Bolt Fires...”


  • avatar
    aja8888

    These EV’s sure are turning into HOT cars!

  • avatar
    mcs

    “It might also be nice for regulators to nip any EV fire hazards in the bud before they become the dominant form of personal conveyance”

    Well, they don’t seem to have done a good job nipping ICE fire hazards in the bud before they became dominant. At least with EVs, there probably are some standards that could be implemented to reduce or prevent the fires. Newer battery chemistries that are in the works should reduce the problems. In the meantime, I think many of the problems are probably related to pack manufacturing quality issues. My guess is the quality of the soldered connections on the cells. That’s one area of quality that Tesla seems to have a handle on. The rest of the car is a quality mess, but the pack manufacturing process seems to be pretty solid for the 3 and the Y. The 4680 cells should be even better.

    That being said, I agree NHTSA does need get a handle on what’s going on and solve the problems before EVs become more common. It should be easier to solve the problems with EV fires vs. ICE vehicles.

    • 0 avatar
      Master Baiter

      @mcs:

      You are always quick to chime in about EVs and batteries, as if you know something worth sharing. It’s clear you don’t know much about batteries if you think cells are connected via soldering. Heat from soldering would damage the cell; that’s why cells are always connected using resistance welding or laser welding.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        “Master Baiter”

        If you keep the solder’s liquidus temperature below ca. 150 °C. you’re good to go. Fact check it. I’ve said in the past, I don’t assemble my own packs. Not even small ones.

        I’ve owned an EV for 6 years and been working with robotics since I was a teenager. Both parents and grandparents were engineers so I’ve been building electrical type stuff since childhood. I’ve written low-level code for driving electric motors along with building the systems to power them. All of the mechanics, motors, and sensors are a necessary evil that I have to work with in order to perform experiments for AI research. I have a huge interest in EV related technology since it’s a gating factor for my research. Longer range EVs means more computing power for me in my “devices.” Batteries with improved volumetric density means more space to work with.

        The AI I’m working with models biological systems so you may see me talking about medical-related subject matter. My work also has applications in medical data analysis and financial systems technology. The fintech stuff will probably end up being the thing that funds everything else.

        • 0 avatar
          Master Baiter

          @mcs

          “If you keep the solder’s liquidus temperature below ca. 150 °C. you’re good to go.”

          Commercial LiIon batteries have a maximum storage temperature of 60°C, so 150°C is not “good to go.” Also, most cells have a PTC in the positive button that activates at around 90°C; soldering to the positive button risks damaging that component too. Other than a few ignorant YouTube tinkerers, no one solders to a LiIon cell, even with low temperature solder.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Per my comment the other day, the devil will be in the design and manufacturing details.

    Except for the nature of their fuel – which is a big difference – each mfr can really mess up a design to make it unsafe. I don’t know if there are design standards for EVs (think UL/CSA/CE) that would govern basic principles of design safety, but there should be.

  • avatar
    Matt51

    On the other hand, this could be the Achilles heel of electric cars.

  • avatar
    Old_WRX

    Some sort of statistics would helpful comparing the fire danger of EV’s v.ICE. Without that this discussion is rather meaningless.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      I still see the fires as more of a result of engineering or manufacturing errors. Probably equal in some ways on both types of vehicles. There are EV issues that can cause fires, ICE issues that can cause fires, and common issues. I just took a look at the latest Hyundai recall over brake fluid leaks potentially causing an engine fire. If it was a EV, there are probably ways the brake fluid could have been ignited. So, that could potentially fall into the “common” category.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    The following documentary clip rather vividly demonstrates a very typical real-world scenario which results when self-driving technology is combined with internal combustion/liquid fuels. Note: Language advisory (and other unpleasantness).

    https://tinyurl.com/y33jqxlx

  • avatar

    It is tragic GM is betting the company on a lost cause like the Bolt.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      How do you come to the conclusion the company’s betting itself on this model?

      • 0 avatar

        There are several models coming up that are based on the Bolt, and a few other ridiculous ventures like the EV hummer that are based on other platforms. I don’t think GM will ever sell more than 40,000 EVs annually. They would have been better off selling 180,000 Cruzes a year. It all comes down to economy of scale.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          GM will simply keep shrinking its North American sales of bread and butter items, hoping to maintain or increase its truck sales and possibly niche sales such as Corvette. Their focus is PRC.

          • 0 avatar

            I think the current GM is being designed to function with 15% of the US market. Remember, they won’t even be number in America if and when the FCA/PSA merger goes through. This is the main reason GM is suing FCA. Of course GM wouldn’t be in this absurd situation if they hadn’t sold Opel off to PSA, which embolden PSA to pursue FCA. In this chess match GM finds itself in a checkmate situation.

            It is going to be embarrassing when GM finds itself in fifth place.

            Just 20 years ago GM had 28% of the US market. They are now deliberately sacrificing even more market share to pursue EVs, which represent just 2% of the market.

            Today GM is not much larger than Chrysler was in 1985!

            Someday GM will find there is nothing left to cut. GM’s reckless foray into EVs will be remembers as one of company’s biggest blunders. I think many stock analysts agree, which explains why GM stock is stuck in the low 30’s.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Wild prediction: Tesla will buy GMNA in a multi year transition deal when the parent GM pulls out of North America. This will be for its EV technologies and distribution network. Tesla will sell cheaper crappier EVs under another marque and use the GMNA dealer network to move the volume.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      GM is a now a de facto Chinese company, PRC wants EVs because of its pollution and the large electric grid they are building with I think 20+ nuclear plants and a number of new coal plants. US power infrastructure isn’t growing nearly as much and thus the EV does not make as much sense, but part of Agenda 2030 is effectively to reduce oil consumption by reducing car ownership/driving. They really don’t care if your energy infrastructure is equipped to handled their chosen replacement, the EV.

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