As Chevy Bolt recall expands, some dealers ‘in a world of pain’

The 2017 Bolt EV. Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Jonathan Bruyn has 50 unsellable Chevrolet Bolts on the lot of his Colma, Calif., dealership lot, and he doesn’t know what to do with them.

All of them have been recalled for potential battery fire risk, but there’s no fix yet for the Bolt EVs and its new larger sibling, the Bolt EUV. Bruyn, the general manager of Stewart Chevrolet, is now at a loss financially and at how to move forward with just 16 sellable vehicles on his lot.

The global semiconductor shortage has already drastically curtailed new-vehicle inventories, and now dealers have to set aside the Bolts and handle questions and complaints from frustrated customers, while wondering how the $1.8 billion recall will affect General Motors Co.’s plans for an all-electric future.

Metro Detroit dealers are feeling less of a hit, but others in areas with higher interest in electric vehicles like California are, as Bruyn calls it, “in a world of pain.”

“I’m never going to be able to repair them all,” Bruyn said in an interview with The Detroit News this week. “I’m never going to be able to repair the customer demand before I can ever sell one again.

“I have no clue what could possibly be done in this situation that doesn’t involve something absolutely unprecedented.”

GM last week expanded its recall to include all Bolt EVs and Bolt EUVs, adding 73,018 vehicles from model years 2019-22 to the list for “rare” battery defects that could cause fires. The recall now covers 141,685 vehicles. The automaker has confirmed 10 fires. There have been no deaths reported but some smoke inhalation injuries.

GM and battery partner LG Energy Solution are still working on a fix for the defective batteries.

The fires are believed to have resulted from the simultaneous presence of a torn anode tab and folded separator in a battery cell; engineers from both companies discovered the apparent cause after investigating cells.

An anode is the negative side of a battery and the separator is plastic film that separates that side from the cathode, the positive side. Contact between the anode and cathode could cause a fire.

It was difficult for the companies to examine the cells within the actual batteries that caught fire, however.

“Many of these vehicles are damaged to a point that the confirmation of a battery fire is the only real data we can get from those vehicles because they’re damaged to a point beyond recognition,” GM spokesman Dan Flores said.

The automaker said it will replace defective battery modules in the Bolts with new ones, but last week Flores noted GM “will only begin replacing battery modules in customer vehicles when GM and LG are confident in the safety of LG’s product.”

On Thursday, GM halted production of Bolt EVs and EUVs at its Orion Assembly plant in Lake Orion for the next two weeks “as a result of a battery pack shortage,” from the recall, a company alert obtained by The News said. Production was also down this week because of the global semiconductor shortage, which has cost the industry millions of vehicles.

That shortage affecting automakers since the start of this year has left some dealers’ inventory almost on E.

David Halvorson, owner of American Chevrolet in Modesto, Calif., in the past would typically have 225 new vehicles on his lot. The dealership had about 10 new vehicles on-site, but then the Bolt recall happened and now there are just five.

He has about 68 new vehicles on the way, but 42 of those have to be held for missing chips.

Despite these compounding and stressful issues, Halvorson is happy to see GM getting out in front of the Bolt issue and that the automaker is building vehicles even if they lack some semiconductors and holding them until supplies are available.

“I am just really tickled at the approach since (GM CEO) Mary Barra has been in office that they are taking a proactive, safety, customer engagement first on all this stuff,” he said. “Because let’s face it, in the last 100 years, sometimes General Motors hasn’t made those quick decisions.”

Chevrolet spokesman Kevin Kelly said the stop-sale on the recalled Bolts “will remain in place until we can obtain defect-free battery modules and packs from LG. We will work with dealers to get their inventories remedied as soon as possible.”

Paul Zimmermann, vice president and dealership partner of George Matick Chevrolet in Redford Township, isn’t too concerned about the recall with just a couple Bolts in stock at his lot.

“It’s not the first stop-sale, whether it’s electric or combustion, I’m sure it won’t be the last,” he said. However, for “California dealers who sell a higher volume, (there’s) probably greater concern.”

When the first recall of 2017 through 2019 Bolts was announced in November, Dmitry Agapitov, general sales manager at Northwood Chevrolet in Eureka, California, had a few used Bolts he had to sit on for months until a recall fix was issued in the spring.

Then he bought more and those Bolts were recalled again in July for another fix.

“At least it’s good that GM is just straight up offering to replace the batteries as opposed to beating around the bush,” he said. “Because I think if they do ... kind of stall on telling customers what they’re going to do from here on, it could really affect them long-term. If they do not make this right, if they do not fix this right away and take care of it, people are gonna be very hesitant buying something else from GM that has a battery in it.”

GM is planning to sell 1 million electric vehicles globally by 2025 and by 2035 aspires to have an emissions-free lineup. The automaker has stressed that its coming EVs will be built with different technology and battery chemistry than the Bolts. The new technology is called Ultium.

Barra pointed that out Thursday in a Bloomberg TV interview at the GM’s Detroit Renaissance Center headquarters: “Ultium technology is very different than what’s in the Bolt, and I believe the lessons learned ... through this experience are really going to benefit the entire industry and the importance of the manufacturing processes, and with our joint venture with LG, who is a valued partner, we are going to combine their expertise with our expertise, so I have a lot of confidence in our Ultium platform.”

GM was supplied batteries from LG for the Bolts. In the future, the battery cells for GM EVs will come out of joint venture plants GM and LG are building together in Ohio, Tennessee and other undisclosed locations. The first LG/GM Ultium Cells LLC joint-venture plant is slated to open early next year in northeast Ohio.

As far as how the recall affects the brand and future EV goals, Chevy spokesman Kelly said: “We’re going to work closely with our customers to assure we earn their trust and hopefully they will stay with on our journey to an all-electric future.”

With his prime product being electric, Bruyn is worried about how this recall of GM’s only current EVs affects the transition and customer acceptance of it and future models. The next electric vehicles coming from the automaker are the GMC Hummer EV later this year and the Cadillac Lyriq crossover next year.

GM is also planning to deliver an electrified Chevrolet Silverado, but it hasn’t yet released timing details.

“This is going to follow them through the other brands ... like Hummer, this is going to follow them into Cadillac Lyriq, and this is going to do a lot of damage to the Silverado ... this is bad for the brand,” Bruyn said.

The people buying Bolts, he added, are “very analytical” and the recall puts “a scar on the product that it didn’t have before. And I think it deters a lot of customers.”

Of top concern to Bruyn is how he will fix the Bolts he has in stock and the ones he’s sold. He has two technicians on staff trained in working on EVs, but other dealerships don’t even have one, he said.

“You want to talk about a real financial impact, how do I get them fixed?” he said. “I’m one of the big guys with two technicians. There are dealerships in this area that have zero.”

Meanwhile, he has hired additional people to filter calls from angry Bolt customers to Chevrolet. Bolt drivers have been told they should only charge the battery to 90%, charge more frequently and avoid depleting the battery below about 70 miles of remaining range. They also should park the vehicle outside.

“What am I going to do? I’m going to wait here for the manufacturer to come up with a solution that doesn’t involve a technician that has years of training,” Bruyn said. “And I have no idea what that could be because there is no precedent for it.”

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