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US investigates fire reports in Chevy Bolt EVs

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into fires that occurred in Chevrolet Bolt EVs, currently General Motors Co.'s only electric car in the U.S.

More than 77,800 Bolts from 2017-2020 model years are included in the probe by NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation into fires in the electric battery compartment area of the Bolts. 

2017 Chevy Bolt

NHTSA received two reports about a 2018 Bolt and 2019 Bolt "alleging that the vehicles caught fire under the rear seat while parked and unattended."

The office conducted additional research, and found a 2017 Bolt EV with a similar burn pattern in the interior rear seat area. In all cases the fire damage appeared to be concentrated in the electric battery compartment area. The cause of these fires is unknown. One person complained of smoke inhalation injuries. 

In a statement, GM spokesman Dan Flores said the company is cooperating with NHTSA and is conducting its own investigation.

"The safety of our products is the highest priority for the entire GM team," he said. 

This isn't the first time the safety of electric batteries has been a concern as the electric market has gained more momentum in the U.S. and abroad. NHTSA in 2019 launched an investigation that remains open into fires of Tesla Inc. electric cars.

But 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."

Electrified vehicle sales made up less than 5% of sales in 2019 in the U.S., but the electric vehicle market is continuing to gain momentum, especially abroad, like in Europe where 8% of car sales in the first half of 2020 where electric, Reuters reported. In China, sales of new energy vehicles, which include battery-powered electric, plug-in gasoline-electric hybrid and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, increased 67.7% in September for their third consecutive month of gain, Reuters also reported.

GM, like other automakers, has been on aggressive on its electric plans with 20 models planned globally by 2023. In the U.S., so far the automaker has announced plans to launch the GMC Hummer EV; the Chevrolet Bolt EUV, a larger version of the Bolt EV; and the Cadillac Lyriq. At its March EV Day, GM also showed the Cadillac Celestiq, a custom-built luxury electric car, along with the Cruise Origin, an autonomous electric shuttle. Other unnamed Chevrolet, Cadillac and Buick SUVs were on display at the event. 

GM's now discontinued Chevrolet Volt hybrid  was previously investigated by NHTSA for battery fires. The probe was closed in 2012 after GM made changes to the battery packs on the Volt. 

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall