Chevy Bolt EV belonging to Vermont lawmaker who has backed industry catches fire

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The Vermont State Police released this photo of the 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV that caught fire on July 1, 2021 in the driveway of state Rep. Timothy Briglin, a Democrat.

Vermont State Police

A Chevrolet electric vehicle owned by a Vermont state lawmaker who has backed the industry recently caught fire while charging in the politician’s driveway, according to Vermont State Police.

The vehicle, a 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV, is part of a recall of nearly 69,000 of the electric vehicles globally due to fire risks that was announced in November by General Motors and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

State Rep. Timothy Briglin, a Democrat, told authorities the EV had been serviced for the recall in recent weeks, Vermont State Police Det. Sgt. Matthew Hill said Wednesday. That could mean the repair was not done correctly; it’s not a solution for the fires; or there’s another problem with the vehicle.

GM said in a statement sent to CNBC on Wednesday that company officials are “in touch with authorities to understand the specific circumstances.” They also have “reached out to the customer and are actively investigating the incident.” A spokesman for the Detroit automaker declined to comment further on the fire until the company has access to the vehicle and its investigation is complete.

Hill said he had not been contacted yet by GM regarding the incident, which he said occurred while the vehicle was plugged in to charge.

The fire is the most recent to highlight an ongoing concern of automakers and vehicle safety watchdogs as companies release an influx of new electric vehicles in the coming years. Automakers have continually touted the environmental benefits of EVs, however, the lithium-ion batteries that power the vehicles can be dangerous and result in significant chemical fires if something goes wrong.

The Biden administration has been a proponent of EVs, including the Chevrolet Bolt EV. The vehicle was featured in a video last week touting President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, expanding U.S. charging stations and converting the government’s vehicle fleet to EVs. 

Similar to previous fires

The Vermont State Police said the cause of the fire “appears to be an undetermined electrical system failure” that started within the passenger compartment in the area of the back seat. The origin of the fire is consistent with a handful of previous fires reported to federal regulators and the company in Bolt EVs.

Briglin — who is chair of the state House Committee on Energy and Technology and has supported EVs, including co-sponsoring a bill relating to electric and plug-in hybrid EV incentives — did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Officials with the NHTSA and local fire department also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The fire was reported at about 9 a.m. Thursday at Briglin’s house in Thetford, Vermont, according to a release from Vermont State Police and public records. No injuries were reported.

GM recalled the vehicles in November over electrical fires it said were caused by a rare manufacturing defect in certain battery modules in vehicles produced for the 2017-2019 model years.

The repair requires installing advanced onboard diagnostic software into the vehicles that, among other things, has the ability to detect potential issues related to changes in battery module performance before problems can develop.

Customers must take their vehicles into a Chevrolet dealer to get the fix.

Ongoing concern

EVs produced by Tesla have been among the most high-profile reported fires, including a high-performance 2021 Tesla Model S Plaid sedan last week. But EV fires are a potential problem for all companies as the industry releases a fleet of new electric vehicles in the coming years.

“Safety needs to come first,” Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, told CNBC. “There remain open questions as to why there seems to be a growing trend of lithium-ion batteries in vehicles catching on fire.”

This Tesla Model S Plaid caught fire while the driver was at the wheel, according to a local fire department chief and attorneys representing the driver, on June 29, 2021, in Haverford, Pennsylvania

Provided by Geragos & Geragos

The lithium-ion batteries that power EVs are extremely complex and can result in long-lasting chemical fires if there’s a problem or following a high-speed crash. Traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines also can catch fire, but it’s unclear at this time if EVs pose more of a threat, according to Levine.

“There’s no good data on this yet,” he said. Regarding crashes, Levine questioned whether more fires are being reported just because more EVs are on U.S. roadways or if there is more of a risk of fires for EVs than vehicles with internal combustion engines.

Following reports of EV fires, the National Transportation Safety Board published a report last year about the risks to emergency responders from battery fires in electric vehicles. The NHTSA also released a report earlier this year on a “Battery Safety Initiative” designed to collect and analyze data related to electric-vehicle battery safety as well as conduct special investigations of electric-vehicle crash and non-crash events related to battery safety.

Levine said he’s “encouraged” by the environmental benefits of EVs but more needs to be done regarding protocols and regulations around the safety of EVs in the U.S. He specifically cited new standards in Europe around EV safety ratings that the U.S. has yet to take up.

“This is the moment to get this right,” he said. “As both public and private infrastructure is really investing in the future of EVs and the potential for them, we can get our hands collectively as an automobile universe around making sure these things are safe, or as safe as can be.”

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