Local expert weighs in on EV battery recalls

Local News

(WKBN) — There’s a big push to get more Americans off gasoline and into electric cars.

Four major car makers have active recalls: GM, BMW, Ford and Hyundai. The most recent recall — the Chevy Bolt — is because batteries could catch on fire.

“The lithium ion battery technology itself is really mature. The batteries themselves are inherently not unstable,” said Nick Warner of the Energy Safety Response Group.

Lithium ion batteries power cellphones, laptops, pacemakers and watches — but more and more often, they are powering cars.

“They aren’t like a lead acid car battery. You can freeze it, heat it up, over charge it, under charge it and it’s generally safe. They are a little more sensitive to abuse,” Warner said.

When those batteries are abused, they can catch on fire.

“Electrical abuse. Too much current. Too much voltage. Thermal abuse. Too much heat. Mechanical abuse — poking, prodding, damaging these batteries. We know why they fail,” Warner said.

Putting lithium ion batteries in cars is a newer problem , with the constant jostling on the road. However, the biggest problem comes from charging errors.

When cellphones were new, they came with specific instructions only to use the charger provided. Chargers weren’t standardized and the technology was new — the wrong charger could overheat the phone.

Today, electric vehicles are facing similar issues.

“A lot of folks are making chargers. There are international standards for how these chargers need to operate. But quality control of these may vary. Chargers can be damaged. They can be installed wrong. At the end of the day, there’s a human in the loop,” Warner said.

Those fires can be difficult to put out. The energy stored in the battery doesn’t go away when the car is turned off or wrecked. The energy stays in the battery, and if it’s damaged, that’s how a fire can start.

“Usually if you crash a Tesla, that’s not the end of the event. A lot of times as they’re putting the thing up on the tow truck to haul it off, it catches on fire. As you’re driving it down the highways and two weeks later it catches on a fire again in the junkyard,” Warner said.

But technology is improving to fix these downfalls.

“Regardless of how you feel about climate change, energy storage is here. It’s economical. It’s not going anywhere, it makes sense in vehicles,” Warner said.

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