U.S. safety regulators have launched an investigation into electric and hybrid vehicle batteries after five automakers issued recalls over possible defects that could cause fires or stalls.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said the probe covers more than 138,000 vehicles with batteries made by South Korea’s LG Energy Solution.
General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Stellantis and Volkswagen have issued recalls since February 2020, most due to internal battery failures which can increase the risk of fire.
The agency said it would write to LG and other companies that may have purchased similar batteries to ensure recalls are issued when needed.
Messages were left Tuesday seeking comment from LG Energy Solution.
The company is part of a $4.9 billion joint venture electric vehicle (EV) battery plant with Stellantis, which is expected to open in Windsor, Ont., in 2024.
The investigation is another bug in the growing global rollout of electric vehicles by all automakers to replace internal combustion vehicles to reduce emissions and tackle climate change. Ford and BMW have also recalled batteries in recent years.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board also investigated a series of fires in Tesla vehicles and said high-voltage lithium-ion batteries posed safety risks to first responders after crashes.
Many governments rely on electric vehicles to replace gasoline-powered vehicles that emit greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
Data on electric vehicle fires is limited, but a small sample in April 2021 by the Highway Loss Data Institute of the insurance industry found that electric vehicles and their conventional gasoline counterparts had about the same number of fire claims without collision per 1,000 insured vehicle years.
The institute tracked claims for 10 electric vehicles and their gas equivalents and found that electric vehicles had 0.19 fire claims per 1,000 vehicle-years insured, compared to 0.2 for gasoline counterparts.
Recalls started in 2020
In a document posted on its website Tuesday, NHTSA said the recalls began on February 24, 2020 when Mercedes recalled a 2019 Smart Fortwo electric vehicle. The company said the high-voltage battery manufactured by LG had a defect that could ignite inside the battery cells, increasing the risk of fire.
Eight months later, Hyundai recalled certain 2019 and 2020 Kona electric vehicles with a similar issue.
In November 2020, General Motors issued a series of recalls involving more than 140,000 Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles from model years 2017 through 2022 due to the “simultaneous presence of two rare manufacturing defects in the same battery cell”.
The defect caused at least 10 fires, causing GM to warn owners to park the Bolts outdoors.
LG Energy Solution has agreed to reimburse GM for $2 billion in recall costs, and the company remains in a joint venture with LG to build batteries for its next generation of electric vehicles. This month, GM is expected to restart production and sales of Bolts with replacement battery cells.
Hyundai issued a second battery recall in March 2021 covering 2019 and 2020 Konas and 2020 Ioniq electric vehicles and said an electrical short inside the batteries could increase the risk of fire while parked, charging or driving.
Last February, the Chrysler brand of Stellantis recalled certain 2017 and 2018 Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivans with LG batteries after receiving a dozen reports of fires. A month later, VW recalled certain 2021 ID4 electric vehicles with unreliable connections inside the batteries that could cause stalling.
Stellantis’ joint venture with LG Energy Solution to manufacture batteries in Windsor for future electric vehicles is expected to employ 2,500 people.