Ignition: Spontaneous electric vehicle fires prompt recalls, but some owners stalled waiting on repairs

Car companies, NHTSA say explosions are rare but danger significant enough to reduce charging
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 12:49 PM CDT
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Ashburn, Va. (InvestigateTV) - There are already more than one million electric vehicles on the road in the United States, with millions more expected in the next decade. The shift toward greener automobiles is so significant that earlier this month President Biden approved $900 million in funding to kickstart the creation of a national network to charge EVs. But some of these green electric cars come with a risk that could have drivers seeing red: fires related to their batteries.

Tens of thousands of vehicles have been recalled due to the potential fire threat, with dozens of significant fires reported. As manufacturers work on a fix, drivers across the country say they’re being stalled by the temporary solution.

In May 2021, firefighters from the Loudoun County Fire Department rushed to a home in Ashburn, Virginia, responding to calls of flames shooting out of a garage. Cell phone video from the scene showed the homeowner and his family watching in disbelief as neighbors flooded the area’s 911 dispatch center with calls. One frantically told a dispatcher, “The house is on fire. It’s very bad, very bad actually.”

When the smoke finally cleared, officials said the house was left with more than $200,000 in damage. The family living in the home said it was uninhabitable for nearly a year, forcing them to live with family. It was an ordeal the homeowner, and investigators, say all began with an electric vehicle in the garage.

EV fires are rare, but threat led to major recall effort

Spontaneous fires in electric vehicles, or EVs, are a rare but alarming scenario that’s been reported across the country. As far back as 2020, documents we uncovered from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show multiple major car manufacturers including Chevy, Hyundai, BMW and Mini have reported defects with their EV batteries that could potentially spark a fire in certain circumstances.

Records show those companies all voluntarily recalled vehicles for repairs associated with problematic batteries and the threat of fires. BMW and Mini did not respond to InvestigateTV’s emails seeking comment. A representative from Hyundai indicated the company was no aware of any injuries associated with its specific problem. Owners of the impacted Hyundai vehicles are being notified by mail with instructions to bring their cars to a dealer for repairs at no cost to the customer.

NHTSA records show, generally, tens of thousands of cars have been recalled for repair because of the risk of ignition in EVs that are charging, or after they’ve been unplugged. The problem even has some major airports banning specific electric cars from their parking lots.

“The battery enters a state where it catches on fire. This can happen for a number of reasons, and sometimes they’re undetermined,” said Michael Brooks, the acting executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a DC-based consumer advocacy group.

Brooks said the mystery of one specific battery’s root problem is being investigated by the government, with no conclusions yet. But as the investigation continues, some EV owners are left with restrictions on how they can charge and where they can park, cars that can’t go as far as designed and fears about what could happen to the vehicles sitting under their roofs or just outside the door.

“It’s concerning because it’s a different type of danger because you’re not in your car. You’re in your house and you’re asleep, and your car catches fire and you have no way of knowing,” Brooks said.

Complaints to NHTSA come from across the nation

Our team discovered NHTSA records that show EV fires have happened nationwide, with significant outcomes.

An Arizona man told the agency he had to be treated for smoke inhalation after his charging EV unexpectedly caught fire in his garage. Another complaint from a New Jersey owner claimed that if the spontaneous EV fire that spread into his house had happened overnight, he and his wife could have died. And an unidentified person who supplied pictures from security cameras to NHTSA said his electric car essentially exploded without warning in the driveway.

Each of those incidents, records show, involved a Chevy Bolt. The company, which declined interview requests sent by email, has recalled more than 100,000 Bolts for repair because of the battery fire defect.

According to NHTSA files examined by our national investigative team, Chevy was aware of at least 24 fires related to the Bolt as of April 2022. In response to our questions about the recall, the company told us it was aware of slightly fewer, indicating it knew of 22 fires.

Attempts to talk with the Electric Vehicle Association about the frequency of EV fires were unsuccessful, with the organization unresponsive to emails asking for comment.

Scott Painter, the founder and CEO of Autonomy, a subscription service that lets drivers test out EVs, was quick to point out the danger of fires remains very small. “Data does not support that electric vehicles are unsafe and more likely to catch fire than any other normal internal combustion engine car,” Painter said.

A recent study done by the group, AutoinsuranceEZ, analyzed NHTSA data. It showed fires were less likely in EVs than gas powered vehicles. But experts have said there still isn’t enough concrete evidence to draw solid conclusions, pointing out that fires in EVs can be more difficult to battle as they burn hotter and require much more water to extinguish.

When it comes to Chevy, the company’s permanent fix for the problem is to replace the vehicle batteries, which are being probed as part of that NHTSA investigation. But Brooks said supply chain issues have extended wait times, leaving many drivers in limbo.

“It’s tough luck. You know, the manufacturer issues a recall and we see this all the time, folks are having to sit for up to a year or more waiting for a repair,” Brooks said. “People are basically being told suck it up, we’ll get there eventually. We hope you don’t die or get injured in the meantime and that’s super disappointing.”

A Chevy Bolt sits parked in the driveway of a Pennsylvania owner
A Chevy Bolt sits parked in the driveway of a Pennsylvania owner(Joce Sterman, InvestigateTV)

Chevy, and several other companies impacted by battery defects that could increase the risk of a fire, have taken steps to minimize risk. Bolt owners were originally told to limit charging, avoid running their batteries below 70 miles to empty and to park outside immediately after charging and not leave the car indoors overnight.

In December 2021, more than a year after the first of three voluntary Bolt recalls, Chevy came up with a software update to mitigate the threat, but with the fix came a reduction in charging that drivers say limited how far they can go.

The update limited the Bolt’s charge to 80% and lifted the earlier restrictions for those who get it. The company wouldn’t provide specific numbers when asked how many recalled Bolts have had the update installed.

Software update is far from the final fix

While the software update is considered major progress in lessening the fire risk, the temporary solution has created other headaches, experts said.

“The bigger pain for all of the owners is having to park outside and basically upend their vehicle ownership pattern because of something they had nothing to with. So, it’s certainly more than disappointing. It’s outrageous, and you can see why these owners are complaining to NHTSA,” said Brooks.

InvestigateTV scoured NHTSA’s public database, digging up complaints from at least 100 EV drivers in the last two years specifically related to the battery defect. Many were angry, saying they can’t charge or drive their cars as much as expected.

“It’s terrible. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on that car, and now I can barely even drive it,” Bolt owner Jada Nabry said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”

In 2020, Nabry leased a Chevy Bolt with help from her mom, Stephanie. Records show the Pennsylvania family is still paying on the $34,000 lease, even though they say Jada’s dream car has mostly been collecting dust since they heard about the recall and the risk last winter.

“Charging it just made me super nervous inside the house. I was scared, like, ‘Am I going to wake up to a burning fire?’” Nabry said.

Chevy Bolt owner Jada Nabry stands with the vehicle her family leased in 2020
Chevy Bolt owner Jada Nabry stands with the vehicle her family leased in 2020(Joce Sterman, InvestigateTV)

The Chevy software update alleviated some of the family’s concern, but Stephanie Nabry said it created other problems that drivers nationwide have also told NHTSA about, specifically the complications created by limitations placed on their vehicle.

“It became difficult when they did the software update and they put a restriction on how much the car could charge,” Stephanie Nabry said. “It decreased the mileage she could go quite a bit so then it becomes this game every day, ‘Ok, where am I going? How far can I go? Did I charge the car enough overnight?’”

The family said the unpredictability was a major factor in their decision to keep the car at home, rather than drive it nearly 2,000 miles across the country to UNLV, where Jada started college, this fall.

In recent months, they say she barely drove the EV more than a few miles across town, with concerns about whether she’d have enough mileage after charging to complete a trip.

Owners impacted by EV recalls seek recourse

That kind of concern has prompted a call for Chevy to compensate people who have been waiting months or even years for those long-promised replacement batteries. The company wouldn’t provide any specifics on how many batteries it has replaced as part of the recall process or how long the whole process will take, saying only that replacements have been made available to the majority of Bolt owners.

In response to our questions about the delays, a spokesman for the company said, “We continue to work with our supplier to produce more replacement batteries, and we’re making progress every day.”

Rather than wait for a new battery, some owners want buybacks of their vehicles, which Chevy told us it is doing on a case-by-case basis.

Philadelphia-based attorney Bob Silverman has been working to give dissatisfied Bolt owners additional options. His firm has already filed 50 legal claims against the company on behalf of customers in 16 states, including the Nabry’s.

Attorney Bob Silverman talks about claims filed against Chevy following issues with the...
Attorney Bob Silverman talks about claims filed against Chevy following issues with the company's electric vehicle batteries(Scotty Smith, InvestigateTV)

“When you get deprived of the benefit of your bargain, and you don’t get to use your car as intended, you’re getting ripped off,” Silverman said. “The biggest problem is there’s no alternative transportation available, so there’s no rental cars, nothing available and they’re really out in the cold.”

Experts in the electric vehicle industry said they don’t anticipate the EV recalls associated with a potential fire risk to chill the market for electric vehicles. Scott Painter, Autonomy’s founder, said there continues to be a huge demand for electric vehicles.

But the viral nature of some of the more recent incidents has sparked a conversation about a problem that is still incredibly rare.

“In reality, we just don’t hear about those things with an internal combustion engine car, but we hear about it every time something happens with electric,” Painter said. “There’s no reason an electric car is any less safe than anything we’re driving today. In fact, most electric cars come with more technology, they’re more autonomous, more connected. And with autonomous, connected electric cars, all that technology leads to fewer accidents, lower insurance rates and better safety.”

To find out whether your car is subject to any active recalls, search using your VIN using NHTSA’s website by clicking here.