The Gen I EV1 Fire and Recall

On February 17, 2000 at around 630pm PST, the Gen I EV1 driven by Ron Brauer and Ruth Bygness caught fire while it charged in its garage in the Tierrasanta area of San Diego. Because I know Ruth (we both work at Qualcomm, where we regularly shared a charger), she invited me to observe the investigation into the fire.

Two days later, I sent this message to the EV1 club mailing list.

On February 23, Ron and Ruth invited me to be present as the garage (sealed shortly after the fire) was opened for inspection by State Farm's fire investigator and several GM representatives. I took many photographs. From my conversations with the fire investigator it became clear that the fire originated in the car, specifically the charge port.

On Friday February 25, I sent this message to GM's "brand manager" for advanced technology vehicles, Mr. Ken Stewart. I was unable to reach Mr. Stewart by phone to ensure that he had received the message. When he finally returned my call on monday the 28th, he seemed interested mainly in knowing what I had done with the photos I had taken of the aftermath of the fire. He also brushed off my offer of my photos in any internal investigation, suggesting that GM already knew the cause of the fire.

On February 26, I sent this followup message to the EV1 club mailing list.

After two weeks of stony silence, GM suddenly announced a recall of all 1997 Gen I EV1s as well as the electric version of the S-10 pickup truck, which uses the same charge port design. GM also issued an astonishing press release that claimed while there had been 16 "thermal incidents" related to the inductive charge port, there were no "confirmed" cases of property damage. (To their credit, this claim has been quietly removed from the abbreviated, archived version on their website.)

GM has subsequently disclosed further information about the cause of the fire hazard. A capacitor physically located inside the charge port ages and eventually fails over time. This fits nicely with my own theory of the Tierrasanta fire: burning material (the capacitor, the paddle or other internal components) dripped out of the bottom of the coupler through drain holes onto the garage floor. There it ignited the underside of the front bumper, which contains relatively flammable material (foam rubber and polystyrene foam).

GM has developed a fix for the problem that involves moving the capacitor and rectifier out of the charge port and into a separate box (and, presumably, choosing a more reliable make of capacitor!) Unfortunately, they say the fix will not be ready until the first quarter of 2001, a full year after the recall. That leaves hundreds of Gen I EV1 drivers without their cars, and to say we're pissed off would be an understatement. I am still waiting for GM to tell me if I can soon get a Gen II EV1, or if I'll have to wait until the Gen I cars are repaired.

Even before the recall, EV1s were in tight supply with many people waiting months to get their cars. This certainly puts the lie to the oft-heard claim that "no one wants to buy an EV". The question remains whether GM (or any other existing auto manufacturer) will take the EV market seriously and meet the demand, or whether they will continue to treat the EV1 program as simply a cost of doing business in California.