Many of the world’s major automakers are grappling with fire risks and other safety problems posed by powerful lithium-ion batteries in their electric vehicles, triggering multiple global recalls and investigations.

The lithium-ion battery problem automakers face is similar to the one that consumer electronics manufacturers must often confront. The rechargeable, energy-dense batteries have revolutionized many of the products we rely on, from cell phones, laptops, and e-cigarettes to e-scooters, cars, and even airplanes.

But along with our sharply increasing reliance on lithium-ion batteries for everyday purposes comes a greater risk of fire and possibly explosion when the batteries malfunction or become damaged.

Regulatory, clean-air deadlines and consumer demand for bigger, more powerful batteries may be amplifying the risks as automakers must come up with more batteries, faster.

Batteries trigger e-vehicle recalls

Hyundai recently announced a December 2020 global recall of all 77,000 of its highly rated 2019 and 2020 Kona Electric vehicles, including 6,707 in use in the U.S. and 4,375 in Canada. The recall follows at least 13 reports of battery fires in Kona Electric SUVs that were parked and fully charged.

General Motors (GM) is also recalling more than 77,000 2017-2019 electric Chevy Bolts after drivers complained of fires igniting under the back seat, where the battery is located. One Chevy Bolt driver’s complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that the car was plugged into a charger in the driveway when the fire erupted. NHTSA is currently investigating the incidents.

Ford Motor Co. recalled about 20,500 plug-in hybrid Escape SUVs after receiving seven reports of battery fires. The automaker warned owners to avoid charging their vehicles. Tests showed that the lithium-ion batteries can overheat and vent hot gas to other parts of the vehicle, resulting in fire. The European recall has led Ford to delay the U.S. introduction of its Escape plug-in hybrid.

BMW is also investigating a number of battery-related vehicle fires, mostly in vehicles that haven’t been delivered yet to customers.

Stronger batteries needed, and faster

According to the Wall Street Journal, Hyundai, GM, Ford, and BMW all say that the battery fires are caused by manufacturing defects and originate with their suppliers. But lithium-ion battery fires in electric vehicles may also stem from the way the batteries are integrated into the system and managed by software.

Nick Warner, principal at Energy Storage Response Group LLC, an energy safety and testing firm, told the Wall Street Journal that the problem “could be as simple as a zero instead of a one in a line of software.”

Despite the progress many automakers have made in delivering electric and hybrid vehicles to the public, improving the safety of the lithium-ion batteries while packing more energy into them, ramping up production, and lowering costs appears to be the biggest challenge going forward.

Auto Products Liability

Chris Glover, managing attorney in our Atlanta office, has handled a number of claims involving auto products liability. If you feel you have a claim involving an auto safety defect of any type, our attorneys would like to talk to you. You may be entitled to compensation. If you or someone you know has been involved in a vehicle accident and suffered serious injuries you feel are related to an auto safety defect, contact us today for a free, no-obligation legal consultation.

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