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Federal probe of battery fires ups pressure on electric car industry

Environmentalists have long considered transportation key to a clean-energy future, but first they must reckon with a perception that electric vehicles are prone to combustion.

(CN) — After five automakers announced battery recalls for their fleet of electric and hybrid vehicles, the U.S. government said it is stepping in as well to determine whether cars powered by high-voltage devices are at more risk than others of going up in flames.

The investigation opened Friday, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which says it will write to the battery giant LG Energy Solution and "ensure thorough safety recalls are conducted where appropriate."

South Korea-based LG is estimated to have roughly 138,000 batteries in automobiles across the country across various makers. General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Stellantis and Volkswagen are named in the document as having issued recalls with the devices in the last two years.

Against startling headlines and a dearth of data from a nascent industry, though, the insurance industry's Highway Loss Data Institute reported in April 2021 that its small sample study showed comparable scores for electric vehicles and gas-run vehicles in the number of non-crash fire claims they see per 1,000 insured vehicle years. 

The study focused on fires “that happen not because of a crash but rather when vehicles are sitting still in garages or driveways or parking lots,” explained Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, noting these happen in conventional and electric vehicles alike. 

“Fires are very rare, but they do happen, and it’s important people periodically check if their vehicle has any kind of recall so they can get the problem repaired,” Rader said in an interview.

Citing the institute's own crash tests, Rader emphasized that electric vehicles might have an advantage over conventional vehicles.

“Weight is important in protecting people in crashes, so the weight of the batteries in an EV can be a benefit," he said. "HLDI has found that the odds of a crash injury are lower in an EV than in the same model with a conventional gasoline engine.”

"We are not concerned about the safety of EVs,” Rader underlined.

An official at LG Energy Solution said in an email Tuesday that the company is fully cooperating with the investigation. “We understand NHTSA's latest request is a follow-up procedure to determine if the same or similar batteries involved in the recalls were supplied to other OEMs,” the official said, using an acronym for original equipment manufacturers.

Mercedes Benz was the first of the car makers to issue a recall, telling the NHTSA in February 2020 that the LG Chem battery in its 2019 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive “may contain a defect allowing for an electrical arc, which can ignite inside the battery cells, increasing the risk of a fire.”

Come October of that year, the NHTSA says, Hyundai reported a recall over issues with its 2019-20 Kona-Electric vehicle batteries. Also supplied by LG, the batteries in these vehicles “may have been produced with internal damage to certain cells of the lithium-ion battery increasing the risk of an electrical short circuit, which could result in a fire,” according to the government's summary of Hyundai's report.

General Motors joined the mix in 2020 as well, recalling all of its 2017-2018, certain 2019-2022 Chevrolet Bolt EVs and some 2022 Chevrolet Bolt EUV vehicles for LG batteries having “latent cell-level manufacturing defects posing a risk of fire when charged to full, or nearly full, capacity.” After the defect caused around 10 fires, the company told Bolt owners to park their vehicles outdoors.

Last year, LG Electronics agreed to pay General Motors around $2 billion in reparations for the cost of recalling these more than 140,000 Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles. It will resume production of the models this year with new battery cells.

Chrysler and Volkswagen likewise reported battery-related issues with their 2017-2018 Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid Electric and 2021 ID4 model vehicles, respectively, and issued recalls. Rounding out 2021, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board piled on Tesla, the world's largest manufacturer of electric vehicles, saying its high-voltage lithium-ion batteries endanger the safety of first responders attending to crashes.

In the meantime, gas prices have surged and continue to climb amid import bans on Russian oil, coal and natural gas triggered by the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden authorized the use of the Defense Production Act last month to ramp up production of materials for electric vehicle and clean energy batteries.

Biden said he will use the act to support the processing of minerals such as cobalt, manganese, lithium, nickel and graphite used in electric batteries and bolster the production of batteries themselves as a means of reducing U.S. reliance on oil.

European nations are also working to reduce their dependence on the Kremlin’s energy resources.

Under pressure from climate change initiatives, many automakers, too, have announced intent to invest serious money into electric vehicle development. 

Among them, Nissan said in November that it would put roughly $17.6 billion over the next five years into developing a more affordable and powerful battery for electric vehicles. Ford announced plans to expand its electric vehicle operations, saying in April 2021 that it will open a battery development center near Detroit. And General Motors has announced plans to expand its electric vehicle battery plant operations, building a third U.S.-based EV battery plant.

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