Hyundai Being Sued Over Kona Electric Fires, LG Chem on Deck

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Hyundai Motor Co. is being sued over a series of battery fires in its electric vehicles in Asia — specifically in relation to the otherwise-enjoyable Kona EV. Though it hardly seems fair to single out Hyundai when General Motors recently issued a recall encompassing 68,677 electric vehicles with batteries manufactured by LG Chem. Interestingly, Hyundai’s 74,000-strong Kona recall (which includes 11,082 units sold to the United States and Canada) uses the same supplier.

EV fires have become a hot topic within the industry, specifically because it runs the risk of slowing adoption rates and makes the affected automaker look wildly inept. Lawsuits don’t help the matter but Hyundai’s more immediate concerns involve proving that LG is the one that screwed up. While it hasn’t pointed any fingers directly at the supplier, it has dropped subtle hints while LG Chem insists its products are not defective. The duo is reportedly collaborating on an internal investigation into the troubled vehicles — 16 of which have burst into flames in North America, Europe, and Asia.

Last week, roughly 200 people lodged a formal request for class-action status against Hyundai. According to Reuters, they’re seeking compensation for the presumed reduction of resale value and other damages stemming from the recall. They also want the manufacturer to replace the entire battery pack (which would be incredibly costly) rather than continuing to issue software updates. One of the lawyers told the outlet they were initially targeting 8 million won ($7,200) per plaintiff but noted they could increase demands as the trial proceeds.

From Reuters:

South Korea’s safety agency is investigating the cause of the Kona fire, and depending on the results, Hyundai and LG Chem could face costs up to $540 million if they have to replace all the affected batteries, analysts reckon.

In a statement to Reuters, Hyundai said the cause of fire is unclear but it suspects that internal damage to batteries may be to blame, adding that it is investigating the case with its supplier and the transport ministry.

Hyundai said it is not considering setting aside money for recalls as it expects its software fix will be able to prevent fires by detecting problems.

“We are constantly monitoring the situation after an update of the [battery management system] and we will continue to try to minimize consumer inconveniences going forward,” Hyundai said.

A LG Chem spokesman said, “We will cooperate with Hyundai Motor and General Motors and sincerely proceed with an investigation to identify the exact cause” of the fire.

This isn’t the first time automakers and battery suppliers have been at odds with each other. Ford and BMW have also recalled vehicles equipped with batteries from Samsung SDI, suggesting the contributing defects were inherent to their design. Unfortunately, the investigations are ongoing and have yet to prove if the batteries were manufactured poorly or that modifications made by automakers are what ultimately made them unstable.

Reuters noted that LG Chem CEO Hak Cheol Shin stated in an interview from last month that its battery systems could have been negatively affected by components made by Hyundai suppliers. But he doesn’t want to accuse anybody until there’s been an investigation into the fires. “As a supplier of a key component of the battery system, we clearly feel responsibility. But until a clear cause would be determined, we can’t come up with measures to address the problems,” he explained.

While the number of EV fires wasn’t terribly out of whack with their gasoline equivalents when this all started, the Kona Electric recall actually has an unpleasantly high number of confirmed fires. The same was true for Chevy’s Bolt. Unfortunately, the default solution has been for automakers to issue software updates that prohibit vehicles from achieving their maximum charge (lowering range). But that doesn’t seem sufficient to give consumers peace of mind, especially when EV fires are particularity explosive, so many of them happened while vehicles were charging overnight, and the issue extends beyond Hyundai and GM.

[Image: Hyundai]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Nov 18, 2020

    No word yet on problems with the Ioniq EV; hopefully its relationship to the Kona EV doesn't include any troublesome DNA. Pack design is the usual culprit; not the cells themselves. Good pack design allows for a cell to short without fatal consequence, proper spacing, ventilation, overcharge protection, shipping protection, thermal protection, overpressure protection, and so on. Finding the root cause will be tough, so it may require a top-to-bottom design, tolerance, and mfg review. They're not talking about who held responsibility for which aspects of the design. Ownership of the design is likely defined legally, but I'll bet it falls to Hyundai as the final check on what goes out the door. Maybe LG Chem messed something up, but Hyundai can't simply trust them without verification of their work. Same was true of the crankshaft scenario - Hyundai's 3rd party mfr made a terrible oversight, but Hyundai never caught it.

    • See 5 previous
    • Bullnuke Bullnuke on Nov 21, 2020

      @ToolGuy The capacitors in my LG monitor died similar to ToolGuy as mentioned above. The caps were fat and blown (7 total) and sourced from the country of chabuduo (Land of the Kung Flu). Replaced with caps from the Land of the Rising Sun and it came back to life. That may be part of H/K's problem - source from "close enough" suppliers, produce "not good enough" products.

  • Bd2 Bd2 on Nov 18, 2020

    Unless GM made a similar packaging mistake with the Bolt, seems likely that LG Chem will face the brunt of the cost.

  • Grg I am not sure that this would hold up in snow country. It used to be that people in snow country would not be caught dead in a white car. Now that white cars have become popular in the north, I can't tell you how many times I have seen white cars driving in the snow without lights. Almost all cars are less visible in a snow storm, or for that matter, rain storm, without lights. White ones become nearly invisible.
  • Douglas I have a 2018 BMW 740e PHEV, and love it. It has a modest electric only range compared to newer PHEV's (about 18 miles), but that gets me to the office and back each day. It has a small gas tank to make room for the battery, so only holds about 11 gallons. I easily go 600 or more miles per tank. I love it, and being able to take long road trips without having to plug in (it just operates like a regular Hybrid if you never plug it in). It charges in 75 minutes in my garage from a Level 2 charger I bought on Amazon for $350. Had an electrician add a dryer outlet beside the breaker box. It's the best of both worlds and I would definitely want a PHEV for my next car. 104,000 miles and ZERO problems with the powertrain components (so far).
  • Panther Platform I had a 98 Lincoln Mark VIII so I have a soft spot for this. The Mark VIII styling was not appreciated by all.
  • Grant P Farrell Oh no the dealership kept the car for hours on two occasions before giving me a loaner for two months while they supposedly replaced the ECU. I hate cords so I've only connected it wirelessly. Next I'm gonna try using the usb-c in the center console and leaving the phone plugged in in there, not as convenient but it might lower my blood pressure.
  • Jeff Tiny electrical parts are ruining today's cars! What can they ...