Electric Cars Face a Few Recalls and Service Bulletins—But Not for Serious Concerns

By · April 06, 2018

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

In the jittery days when the first mainstream electric vehicles were introduced, circa 2011, there was intense public and media scrutiny about the safety and reliability of battery-powered vehicles. EV advocates were concerned about the potential long-term consequences of overblown headlines following a minor isolated incident. Now, with about 800,000 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads and few defects reported, the technology is proven.

Nonetheless, automakers do issue recalls and bulletins for EVs—as they do for all modern automobiles. For example, General Motors yesterday sent a “customer-satisfaction bulletin” asking all owners of the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt electric car to contact their dealer to schedule service for a software update. The company made it clear that the action is not a “safety recall.”

The step was taken because the company discovered additional incidents of an unlikely battery failure that affected fewer than one percent of Bolt drivers in August 2017. At that time, G.M. notified a few hundred Bolt owners to bring in their vehicles for a full battery replacement. The bulletin issued yesterday stated, “The new calibration software will provide additional warnings if a battery cell low-voltage condition occurs, which could cause the vehicle to reduce or lose propulsion.”

G.M.’s bulletin came one week after Tesla sent an email to more than 120,000 Tesla Model S owners about a voluntary recall. The owners were warned that the power steering on their vehicles might fail. The problem stemmed from corroded or weakened bolts used to hold the steering system together.

The email stated, “Tesla plans to replace all early Model S power steering bolts in all climates worldwide to account for the possibility that the vehicle may later be used in a highly corrosive environment.” Tesla estimates that just .02 percent of vehicles in the US will suffer the failure. In 2015, Tesla had previously recalled the 90,000 Model S vehicles it had built for a seatbelt issue that was easily fixed.

Small by Comparison and Easily Fixable

These G.M. and Tesla issues are similar to one another in the sense that the company was proactive; the remedies were easily achieved; the issues were not related to the electric powertrains, and nobody was hurt. The actions should be seen in the context of recalls across the auto industry for cars and trucks with conventional systems. In March, Mercedes-Benz recalled 121,000 GLC SUVs due to a design flaw in the rear seat belts. Honda is recalling 254,000 Odyssey minivans because the back seats might not latch properly. Recalls in the past couple of years sometimes have involved millions of vehicles with critical safety threats—for example, for faulty Takata airbags used by 14 different automakers in 42 million vehicles.

According to data from National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the auto industry average for recalls between 2012 and 2016 is 1,964 units per 1,000 cars. During that period, Tesla recalled 941 cars per 1,000.

Recalls and bulletins for plug-in vehicles should not be quickly dismissed. But they also do not relate to fundamental technical shortcomings of batteries or electric propulsion.

In January, Fiat-Chrysler said it was formally recalling nearly 154,000 Chrysler Pacifica minivans to fix an issue that has caused some to stall suddenly while starting or idling. The company indicated that an update to the Pacifica minivan’s engine control software would fix the problem.

In November, BMW gave its dealers a “stop-sale order” for the i3 electric car—due to a seatbelt issue that could affect people about five-feet tall and weighing under 110 pounds in a head-on collision. The remedy for drivers was simple: wear a seatbelt.

In September, Hyundai notified a few hundred owners of its Ioniq Electric hatchback about a manufacturing defect in the electric power control unit that may cause a stall and increase the risk of a crash. The remedy was to replace the vehicle electronic control unit.

In sum, recalls do not necessarily reflect a downward quality trend for electric cars. In fact, an increase in recalls arguably indicates greater scrutiny in finding and addressing safety concerns at an early stage. Of course, rattling doors, poorly aligned body panels, and technical design flaws—even ones that are easily addressed—are annoying and could affect resale value. But barring unforeseen dramatic events, recalls of electric vehicles appear to be consistent with industry trends.

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