October 19, 2021

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Warning: This car could burst into flames, says SLO columnist

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Only around 2% of vehicles driven in the U.S. are all-electric. If that’s going to change, carmakers need to boost consumer confidence.

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Life can be fickle.

One day, you’re heading down the highway in your shiny new electric car, smug in the knowledge that you’re doing your part for Planet Earth. The next, you’re banned from parking garages because the battery on your EV might suddenly burst into flames.

Drivers of Chevy Bolts, myself included, are in that very situation, and it is not a happy place to be.

Around a dozen battery fires have been reported in Bolts in the U.S. over the past several months, including two that caused minor smoke inhalation injuries. All occurred when the cars were parked.

At least two parking lots — one in San Francisco and another in Seattle — have posted signs saying they “strictly prohibit” Bolts due to the fire risk. If there are any more incidents, you can expect those signs to proliferate like wildfire. (Sorry)

So far, General Motors has made no blanket offers of rebates or buybacks, though there are reports that it is buying back some cars on a “case-by-case basis.”

I can’t blame people for jumping ship.

Charging an EV can be a hassle at times — especially on long trips — and recommendations to prevent fires by limiting the car’s range don’t make it any easier.

But the industry is relatively new, and of course there will be hiccups.

Keep in mind, too, that vehicle fires aren’t confined to EVs. Gas-powered cars can suddenly burst into flames as well — even after the ignition has been shut off.

One example: Earlier this year Hyundai announced a recall of 471,000 Tucson SUVs due to an electrical short that could cause fires. According to USA Today, it advised Tucson drivers to park outside until their vehicles es are repaired.

As for the Bolts, GM is blaming battery manufacturer LG Chem for the problem, which has been attributed to a torn anode and a folded separator, whatever that means.

I don’t care who’s at fault. I just want my car fixed, and not just for my own peace of mind.

If we want our kids and kids and grandkids to have anything closely resembling a decent quality of life, we need to dramatically change our ways, and that includes switching to EVs. At this point, car makers need to boost consumer confidence in electric vehicles — not erode it.

The good news is that GM does plan to put a new battery in every single Bolt and Bolt EUV — more than 110,000 vehicles in all.

On Monday, the company announced it will start replacing the batteries “as soon as next month,” but there’s no telling how long it will take to get to all those cars.

In the meantime, owners are advised to take precautions:

  • Only charge to 90% capacity.
  • Don’t let it get below 70 miles of range.
  • If you charge in the garage, park it outside as soon as you’ve finished.
  • Don’t leave your car charging overnight indoors.

For a while, GM also advised Bolt drivers to park only on the top-most, open-air level of parking structures, and to park at least 50 feet away from other vehicles, so that other cars wouldn’t be damaged if a battery fire did start.

But according to the Detroit Free Press, GM is now saying Bolt drivers can park wherever they want, as long as they obey all the other safety instructions.

But if I don’t follow them to the letter — say my car is charged to 94% range, instead of just 90% — what then?

Do I carry a tape measure around to make sure I’m at least 50 feet from the nearest car or building?

What if I park in an open area, but other drivers pull in next to me? Should I put a giant “Caution” sign on the roof of my car to warn them off?

And finally, am I liable if my car does catch fire and it spreads to nearby vehicles?

General Motors is silent about that, but I did unearth this nugget from a legal website: “Whenever a recalled car, truck, or SUV is part of the equation, the injured party must prove they didn’t know about the recall. …”

Since I’m writing about this, that pretty much proves I know about the recall.

So, yeah, I better start carrying around that tape measure. And if you happen to see a gray Bolt on the top floor of the Marsh Street parking garage in downtown SLO, keep your distance, at least for now.

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Opinion Editor Stephanie Finucane is a native of San Luis Obispo County and a graduate of Cal Poly. Before joining The Tribune, she worked at the Santa Barbara News-Press and the Santa Maria Times.

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