Ford, BMW plug-in hybrid fires are a 'black eye' for electrified vehicles

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Recalls over plug-in hybrid vehicles mostly in Europe from Ford Motor Co. and BMW are a bad look for the new technology, but are unlikely to affect the auto industry's moves to sell more electrified models, experts said.

Ford this week said it is delaying the launch of its plug-in hybrid Escape crossover to 2021 after 20,500 similar SUVs in Europe were recalled after seven caught fire while recharging. BMW has recalled 26,900 plug-in hybrids globally, including 4,700 in the U.S., after discovering a problem within the battery that could cause a fire.

"It gives a black eye to this group of vehicles," said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions LLC. "As the technology gets better for batteries, they come packed together tighter. They are more reactive as they're closer together, so the fire risk is greater."

The plug-in hybrid Ford Escape has been delayed until 2021 after similar crossover models in Europe caught fire.

"It's one more negative in the column for people who do not want to like battery-electric cars," he continued. "In the grand scheme of things, it won't be slowing things down."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this week also opened an investigation into reports of fires that occurred in the Chevrolet Bolt, currently General Motors Co.'s only all-electric car in the U.S. The probe covers more than 77,800 Bolts from the 2017-2020 model years. NHTSA in 2019 launched another investigation that remains open into Tesla Inc. electric cars that caught fire, as well.

A 2017 NHTSA report declared that the "propensity and severity of fires and explosions" in a battery vehicle are expected to be comparable or "perhaps slightly less than" those of a gas- or diesel-powered vehicle. The study also found that "as battery technology matures, the safety risks may increase as manufacturers attempt to obtain greater performance from existing chemistries and adopt new chemistries with less field experience."

There were an estimated 212,500 U.S. vehicle fires in 2018, according to the National Fire Protection Association. They resulted in 560 deaths, 1,500 injuries and $1.9 billion in direct property damage.

"The reality is if you have a car, whether it is a battery or it is filled with gasoline, there is the possibility of a fire," said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at auto information website Inc.. "Since this is emerging technology, there's a bit more of a magnifying glass on it."

Electrified vehicle sales made up less than 5% of U.S. sales in 2019, but the market is continuing to gain momentum, especially abroad. Government regulations on carbon-dioxide emissions in Europe and China and fuel-economy standards in the United States require automakers to sell enough electrified models or purchase credits from competitors who produce more than enough to avoid government fines.

Ford has stopped the sale of its plug-in hybrid Kuga, the European version of the Escape being recalled. It asked Kuga owners not to plug in their vehicles, instead relying on their conventional hybrid systems. As a result, Ford will join an open emissions pool with other manufacturers to meet carbon level requirements and avoid fines, Ford spokesman Jay Ward confirmed.

In the United States, Ford’s plant in Louisville, Kentucky, began building a redesigned version of the Escape late last year that includes gasoline-powered and non-plug-in hybrid models. The plug-in model was supposed to launch this past spring but Ford changed it to summer after the coronavirus pandemic shut factories for two months. Now, since many of the parts, including the battery and engine, are the same as the Kuga's, sales won't begin until next year.

It is a bump in the road for the Escape after Ford last year had new redesigned Explorers coming off the line in Chicago with major production issues. A plug-in hybrid variant of the Escape, however, would include far less volume, Caldwell said.

"Everybody is watching them after the launch of the Explorer didn't go quite right," Caldwell said. "Every company is watching every cent they are spending because of the intense pressure of having to change the way they do business in response to the global pandemic. This does not help them."

But there are other launches more significant for the Dearborn automaker such as the new F-150 pickup truck and its plug-in version as well as the all-electric Mustang Mach-E.

"There's not much shared across the platforms," said Sam Abuelsamid, e-mobility analyst for Guidehouse Insights. "They're different charing systems; the batteries are from different suppliers. You won't see much of any impact there."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble