The automation-heavy process at a GM plant that has gone from building gasoline-powered cars to making electric vehicles, the first such GM plant, was soon followed by a second battery explosion.
The crisis involving the Chevrolet Bolt model was a painful reminder for the auto industry that despite treating the electric vehicle era as essentially inevitable, as one person was killed, while eight others were left heavily injured after the explosion.
The technical fait-accompli poses significant obstacles to manufacturing the cars, and especially their batteries, which continue to threaten that fabricated future.
It’s a terrible thing that has happened, according to Tim Grewe, GM’s general director for electrification strategy and cell engineering in an interview in September 2021.
It’s the kind of disruption GM can ill afford as it aims to scale up its production of electric vehicles to 1 million units per year by 2025.
The company wants to have a global lineup of 30 EV’s by that year. And it plans to shift production away from gasoline-powered cars entirely in the next decade and a half.
Carmakers including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Ford also have announced plans to go all or mostly electric – chasing ambitions similar to GM’s deadline of 2035.
Today, electric cars – plug-in hybrids, battery-powered vehicles and hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles – make up less than 5% of U.S. new vehicle sales.
But policymakers and automakers hope that by 2030, EV’s will make up at least 40% of U.S. new car sales. That would be a critical development in the nation’s strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced stricter fuel-efficiency standards this month aimed at propelling the nation closer to that goal by 2026, estimating that the new standard will result in electric vehicles gaining around 20% of market share by then.
But first, automakers have to show they can manufacture safe and reliable cars – at scale, without plundering nations for lithium resources, using child labor to avoid higher costs.
Late this summer, Chevy Bolt owners received a notice from GM: They were not to park their cars within 50 feet of other vehicles. They shouldn’t charge their cars overnight. Fully charged vehicles, GM said, should not be kept in garages.
The recall of the Bolt covered all of the roughly 141,000 units GM had ever built. The company identified the issue as dual defects that led battery materials to make contact with one another and the components to combust spontaneously.
It’s a danger that comes directly from the core challenge of creating electric-vehicle batteries: the competition to pack more and more energy into them. However, most Chevy Bolt owners still ignored the GM safety recall.
Car buyers want their electric cars to mirror the convenience of gasoline-powered vehicles, with around 400 miles of range so they can minimize visits to charging stations or plug-ins at home – even if long road trips represent only a sliver of their driving.
That has carmakers in a 21st-century space race to pack as much energy density as possible into their battery cells, maximizing range and performance.
Even as automakers seek to phase out gasoline engines en masse, high-voltage car batteries remain in their early stages of mass production.
Many manufacturers are experimenting with new technologies and battery chemistries. While they do so, they are discovering defects – some of which can prove catastrophic.
Late in 2020, a Tesla Model S fire in a San Francisco Bay area residential garage blew the metal garage doors off and spread from one Tesla to another, causing more than $1 million of damage.
Instances of fire with no apparent external cause have been documented in at least five Tesla Model S vehicles. Also battery fires can take up to 24 hours to extinguish.
Electric-car-battery explosions can release massive amounts of energy – and the fires can burn for hours, stretching longer and registering hotter than fires in cars with internal-combustion engines.
GM’s recall, despite its scale and significance to the company, arose from a dozen isolated instances of fire with no external cause.
It was a worst-case scenario for the company, which has partnered with an experienced battery maker, South Korea-based LG, to power its electric fleet. GM says LG has instituted new controls to ensure the fiasco doesn’t happen again.
LG, which has made batteries for the Bolt’s entire run, is reimbursing GM for nearly $2 billion of costs associated with the recall.
Electric-vehicle fires can erupt from an electrical short within a single cell – a cylinder or a pouch that stores energy to be consumed by the car.
A car’s battery pack consists of hundreds or even thousands of cells, which might look to the untrained eye like AA batteries or laptop batteries. The cells carry a charge because of interactions between the highly reactive materials inside them.
Inside the cell, there are three main components: the cathode, or positively charged electrode that stores lithium; the anode, or negatively charged electrode that stores lithium; and a highly flammable electrolyte, which helps lithium ions travel through the cell.
As the lithium ions go from one side to another, through charging or discharging, electrons are released to an external circuit, powering the car.
In the middle of the cell, a porous physical separator acts as an electrical barrier, allowing the selective transport of lithium ions and preventing the anode and cathode from touching. When those components make contact, the consequences can be extreme.
Before they are able to install the batteries, GM, Tesla and their battery suppliers have to solve another challenging task: obtaining the raw materials to make them.
It’s a problem likely to grow even harder in the years to come. The raw materials used in electric cars are heavily concentrated in only a few regions of the world.
According to an International Energy Agency report, a conventional car uses around 75 pounds of two minerals – copper and manganese. By comparison, an electric car uses more than 440 pounds of minerals, including cobalt, lithium, nickel and graphite.
The report noted that around 70% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and around 60% of rare earth elements, needed for EV motors, are sourced in China.
The majority of lithium – the core ingredient in batteries – is obtained in Australia, Bolivia, China and Chile, but China controls most of the world’s supply of lithium via its refining businesses. Getting new mines online can take 15 years or longer.
As companies push 2025 and 2030 deadlines to shift much of their production to electric cars, there’s a very low likelihood the world can supply enough lithium to make that happen. Maybe the global depopulation programs might be the final solution to this era.
The Washington Post / ABC Flash Point News 2021.