The electric vehicle industry learning curve (and my EV battery recall)
EV Adoption’s Steep Climb
Electric vehicle adoption has been growing massively. Just last year, the number of electric cars in the US doubled. Charging at a public charger wasn’t an issue…I would just pop over to one of the nearest Safe Way or Whole Foods that has DC fast chargers and be able to find an available charger. Sometimes they were broken, but rarely was a charging station full. But in the last six months, the situation has changed. While EV sales doubled last year, public EV charger numbers only grew by 20%. There are so many more vehicles that it can be challenging to find an available fast charger. In San Francisco, I haven’t seen any new DC fast chargers this year. Just recently, I headed out on a <15 min drive to a Whole Foods that has two fast chargers, with both of them being open when I left, and by the time I get there, they were both full!
Another thing that has changed in the last six months is the diversity of EVs charging at public charging networks. Last time I visited an Electrify America fast charger, I saw a commercial van (charging a massive battery at only 30% state of charge) and a Lyft driver. The increased commercial usage of the public charging network by commercial users that aren’t contributing to the expansion of the charger networks, will make fast charging increasingly scarce resource. Hopefully this is leading to better economics for EV charging companies that will eventually lead to more chargers, but so far it seems the charger network economics aren’t working well.
And cars aren’t the only electric vehicle getting popular. Scooters, bikes, skateboards and all kinds of “micromobility” equipment are increasingly part of an electrified mobility landscape. When I’m biking around San Francisco, the electric-assist bikes that are part of the Lyft network are frequently more numerous than regular bicycles! When I have spoken to riders of these electric bikes, they have chosen this mode of transportation over a fossil fuel option (and typically would not have had a bike of their own that they would have taken). It is great that micromobility options are lowering the dependence on fossil fuels!
The Byproduct of the Scaling EV Industry
It has taken many years to reach this level of usage, adoption, and production of electric vehicles. As of mid-2022 there are over 20 million plug-in vehicles on the road globally. According to BloombergNEF, “combustion vehicle sales peaked globally in 2017 and are now in permanent decline.” And while EV production can run into many of the issues seen in manufacturing of any other vehicle, the EV industry has a significant, unique end-of-life issue— large battery packs. Unfortunately, like most of our manufacturing industries, EVs have a production system designed for one way movement of materials…and no real plan on what happens at the end of the line. With the products from cars to scooters and ebikes that flooded the market for the last 5+ years, many are reaching the end of their viable life. That end of life may be due to usage, where the decreasing capacity of the battery with usage results in a suboptimal remaining capacity, or to an issue in manufacturing resulting in a recall. That’s the case for the car I’ve been driving the last 18 months, the Chevy Bolt EV. And so what happens to that massive, expensive component of an EV?
All Chevy Bolts Recalled for Battery Replacement
Out of an abundance of caution over a rarely occurring issue, nearly all Bolts were recalled in the Fall 2021 due to the discovery of defects in the battery production line at LG, the company that makes the battery packs for Chevy. LG is having to foot the $1.9 billion bill to replace batteries on about 180,000 vehicles. Ouch.
The recall was announced while significant supply chain issues prevented it from actually happening. Six months after the recall was announced, I got a letter saying a battery for my vehicle was ready. Each battery is tied to the vehicle’s VIN so my battery was specifically ordered and traveled from Asia to California. About two weeks after it was ordered, mine was finally ready to be installed.
The replacement battery will add on an expected 20 miles range. Not to mention I will be resetting any degradation that had happened on my car’s battery with about 22,000 miles on it. The battery has about 70 cycles of fully charging and discharging. To me this doesn’t sound like a lot given that the battery in my house attached to my rooftop solar had just hit 300 cycles and I’ve had it about the same amount of time, nonetheless, do to the recall I’m getting a fresh car battery.
Is the Economy Ready to Service EVs At Scale?
The battery replacement process involved a huge ramp up at Chevrolet dealers around the country. There weren’t enough people who knew how to do this service and they didn’t have the capacity to handle the massive throughput that the recall created. I called around to a few dealerships to find one that didn’t have a three to six month waiting period before they could even book the service. Luckily, one of the local dealerships appointed a staff person to be point on the replacement process, which is how I got to meet Vic.
My battery showed up on a Wednesday and I was booked to take it in for service the following Tuesday. Getting the service completed could take a week. The shop is now up to two people exclusively working on Chevy Bolt battery replacements. The work requires a forklift as well as personal protective equipment. And as a result, I won’t be able to go watch the work happen, much to my dismay, but I have taken the time to learn about the process and share here.
End of Life for Batteries
What will happen to my battery? What’s its next stage of life? Will it be put to use or melted down for the materials? Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out the answer to that in my battery’s case, so look out for a follow up if I do get more of a story.
For most lithium-ion batteries, recycling happens via a fairly crude method, usually involving shredding and/or melting down in order to extract valuable metals (Cobalt, Nickel, and in some cases, Lithium). Given the growing market for used batteries and the strategic importance of the minerals in batteries, several startups are targeting better ways to recycle. For us to manage the massive increase in battery manufacturing to support renewable integration and electrification of mobility, we have to get much better at building a circular economy for batteries.