Opponents of nuclear power seem to think every reactor is a Chernobyl waiting to happen, which is not even true of older Western designs let alone modern ones. But when the manufacturer of an electric vehicle warns you to keep it away from anything you value, it’s time to admit that all the boosterism about the coming transition to electric vehicles, from people who knew as much about economics as they did about engineering, is dangerous make-believe not just at the level of national economies and budgets but in the personal lives of well-meaning individuals.
The specific warning we refer to is from General Motors and concerns the Chevrolet Bolt. “In an effort to reduce potential damage to structures and nearby vehicles in the rare event of a potential fire, we recommend parking on the top floor or on an open-air deck and park 50 feet or more away from another vehicle”. Yeah. Rare event. What about the rare event of a gasoline fire? Is anybody out there driving an internal combustion engine car that the manufacturer said folks, it’s perfectly safe, nothing at all to worry about, but just to be a teensy weensy bit more safe, park it a long way from your house and run?
Of course it may be objected that owners of the Bolt who follow instructions actually have no reason to worry, because GM has in fact recalled that vehicle entirely. So like those rugs that say “indoor outdoor carpet not to be used outdoors” the Bolt is entirely safe provided you don’t have one. If you do, well, of course it’s still entirely safe although the firm did also happen to mention that “Additionally, we still request you do not leave your vehicle charging unattended, even if you are using a charging station in a parking deck.”
Oh, that’s fine, since as one Chevy advertisement chirped, “Luckily, you have multiple charging options, so you can charge a Bolt completely in as little about 9.5 hours.” And who among us wouldn’t want to sit by our car for 9.5 hours during a recharge watching for wisps of smoke or glowing red spots, especially if like the people in that ad they have a small child to help them while away the time? And these latest cautions that product may explode if used normally come on top of earlier warnings only to charge the battery to 90%, don’t run it down to nearly zero and for heaven’s sake do not park the thing indoors. Not even Lada owners went through that stuff.
Ah well, some may say, looks like GM messed up. Other EVs are safer. But it’s not just GM. Ford had to recall some 20,000 hybrids in 2020, and BMW 26,700, again due to the battery fire issue. Though GM still seems to be in the lead, with a recall of 73,000 on top of an earlier recall of 69,000. It’s not chump change; in fact in addition to the problems for consumers, for instance the people who had a car and now don’t, GM looks to take a $1 billion hit on top of the $800 million from earlier recalls.
Firms keen to jump on the green bandwagon might want to consider whether it’s not actually red, fiscal as well as fire engine. This recall now means the entire output of the Bolt has been recalled, and as the New York Times noted delicately, “The Bolt’s troubles are a setback for G.M. and its chief executive, Mary T. Barra, who is betting heavily that consumers will rapidly switch to electric vehicles in the years ahead. The company plans to spend $35 billion on electric and autonomous vehicles from 2020 to 2025, build four battery plants in the United States and end production of gasoline-powered cars and trucks by 2035.”
So even if GM recovers some or all of the cost of this recall from the battery supplier, it just shifts the massive loss from one firm to another. And it does not protect GM from a disaster that might finish off the once-mighty U.S. carmaker altogether if it turns out politicians are not good predictors of what consumers will want or companies can deliver.
The Detroit News did mention that following the recall of every Bolt EV and Bolt EUV “GM and battery supplier LG Energy Solution are working to understand how two ‘rare’ battery defects believed to be the cause of the fires occurred.” They might really be rare. And besides, the technology is still fairly new, and you might legitimately have exercised precautions in the early days of the regular automobile. For instance the Stanley Steamer, once holder of the land speed record, ran as the name suggests on a steam boiler. Maybe park that thing outside too.
On the other hand, Ronald Stein observes that in Germany there’s a move toward banning EVs from parking underground, partly because of two very famous fires involving electric buses, one in Hanover that caused millions in damages and another in Baise, China. So the current risk is real. And the cost of reducing it is not trivial.
On a simple logistical level, suppose all Germans were told tomorrow they could not park their existing cars underground. It would not be a minor inconvenience or a comic little news item. It would be a disaster. (And in the miracle of markets, insurance companies are reacting to the real danger of fires not some glossy sales pitch from a politician or activist.) So what happens if you make them all switch their existing cars for EVs, then tell them they can’t use any underground parking space or their garage. It’s no joke, especially as most countries don’t have the remarkable amount of space North Americans do to park in, and even here it’s often difficult especially in cities. Can one imagine a university parking lot with 50 feet between vehicles in every direction?
Nor is it a joke that Communist China has a strong grip on the supply of a great many of the minerals essential to wind and solar, from rare earths to the lithium for batteries. Or that Afghanistan, which just fell to the Taliban with active Chinese support, has large mineral deposits including copper, molybdenum, rare earths and, yes, lithium. It’s the sort of thing where all the sweet-smelling mist is dispelled by a cold wind revealing a bleak and forbidding landscape. Like that business back in August when California was having serious problems with its overall power grid and asked EV owners not to charge their EVs during peak demand hours. Mind you Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and other very rich trendy people are also hoping to mine Greenland for minerals, thus spoiling a pristine… hey, wait a minute.
Yeah, well, technology progresses, some may say, including safety technology. Fair enough. But we wish they’d say it about nuclear too. And in any case it’s a far cry from this EV technology being ready now. As Eric Worrall points out with respect to this warning from GM, “a risk of this magnitude is going to start having a real impact, on whether EVs are allowed into carparks or on ferries, unless the problem is rectified real fast. Lithium fires are horribly difficult to extinguish, and emit dangerously toxic fumes which can cause long term or even permanent dementia like brain injuries, along with a host of other usually reversible harms. Earlier this year I asked a serving fire fighter how they extinguish Lithium automobile battery fires. He said ‘We can’t. We cordon off the area, and spray a fine mist of water on the fire to try to keep the temperature down, then wait for it to burn itself out.’”
As U.S. five-star general Omar Bradley probably didn’t say but should have, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” And if the U.S. meets Joe Biden’s goal of 50% EVs in nine years, it will on top of everything else have to invest in a lot more parking spaces in order to avoid having these little lithium bombs too close to one another or anything else, or underground. In any case it might be hard to meet that goal given that, for instance, “The recall of GM's only electric products on the market comes as the automaker is vying to become a leading EV maker. But the automaker is not producing any EVs right now.” Kind of hard to buy a non-existent car.
Here at CDN we are trying very hard to promote rational discussion. Which means taking seriously the ideas of other people. So again let us note that people alarmed about climate change could well say OK, there are big problems with EVs, at least for now. But we still have to do something about GHGs. To which we respond that this argument is logically coherent. But it is not logically coherent to continue “and we can all drive EVs because they’re perfectly safe, high-performance affordable vehicles” if they’re not.