The Constant Evolution of Car Battery Cells: Understanding General Motors’ Decision to Cancel the Chevy Bolt

What can a recall of battery cells tell us about balancing affordability with ever-advancing technology?

The Chevy Bolt is officially CANCELLED.

The evolution of battery cells has been a crucial factor in the advancement of electric vehicles (EVs). Battery cells have become more efficient, powerful, and cost-effective over the years. This makes EVs increasingly attractive to consumers. However, as with any new technology, there are challenges and setbacks along the way.

After years of widespread success and the occasional hiccup, production of General Motors’ Chevy Bolt will finally come to a close. General Motors’ CEO announced the company’s decision to halt production of the Chevy Bolt by the end of this year due to safety concerns related to the car’s battery cells.

Perhaps GM’s recent decision can help us better understand how automakers are navigating both cost and safety as they try to keep up with rapid technological advancement in the EV battery industry.

The Evolution of the Car Battery Cell

Car Battery cells have come a long way since their inception. The earliest battery cells were made of lead-acid, which is heavy and has a low energy density. Over the years, car battery cells have evolved to become more efficient and powerful. Today’s lithium-ion battery cells, which are used in most EVs, are significantly lighter and have a much higher energy density than lead-acid batteries.

There has been significant advancements in battery cell technology more recently. Solid-state batteries, for example, have the potential to revolutionize the electric vehicle industry. These batteries use a solid electrolyte instead of a liquid one, which makes them safer, more durable, and more energy-efficient than traditional lithium-ion batteries. Although they are not used in cars yet, solid-state batteries are used on smaller scales for things like smartwatches and pacemakers. Car companies such as Nissan expect solid-state batteries in their cars by 2028 and BMW hopes to be using them before 2025.

NISSAN / Image from the 2023 Nissan Futures event.

General Motors’ Decision to Cancel the Chevy Bolt

In August 2021, General Motors announced a recall of all Chevy Bolt electric vehicles due to a potential battery cell defect. The company initially attributed the issue to batteries produced by LG Chem’s Michigan factory, which supplied the battery cells for the Chevy Bolt. However, it later became clear that the issue affected batteries from other suppliers as well.

The defect was related to the battery cell’s “high-voltage battery pack” and posed a risk of fire. The lithium-ion batteries used in the Chevy Bolt have been known to overheat and catch on fire. General Motors initially announced a software update to limit the charging capacity of the affected vehicles. However, it later became apparent that this was not a sufficient solution, and the company announced that it would replace all defective battery cells.

In April of 2022, having resolved the battery issue, GM restarted production of their Chevy Bolt models and achieved record sales. In December 2022 Chevrolet announced another recall, this time due to exhaust gases from the seatbelt’s pretensioner causing the car’s carpet floor to light on fire. Despite the car’s continued popularity the company decided not to increase production as they had originally planned, but instead to pull the plug.

In April 2023 General Motors announced their decision to discontinue the Chevrolet Bolt EV/Bolt EUV entirely, citing the high cost of the battery cell replacement and the potential for continued safety issues. This is significant as the Chevy Bolt is the company’s best-selling EV in the U.S. and was what many considered GM’s first ‘mass market EV’.

Though the recalls initially negatively affected sales, during the first quarter of 2023 the company hits its all-time quarterly record having sold 19,700 Bolt models. This increased demand can be attributed to the vehicle’s low price tag combined with the Biden administration’s EV tax credit. This makes Bolt models available to consumers for as little as $20,000  at its most basic version (the cheapest EV in the U.S.). 

Technology over profit?

A company of GM’s size canceling something that remains profitable feels contrary to business-as-usual in the industry. With this announcement the company expressed its commitment to “developing and producing electric vehicles with leading technology and high-quality batteries.” 

This aligns with the direction the company appears to be taking as it focuses more on vehicles, specifically trucks and SUVs, that use its flexible Ultium battery platform. GM claims this battery platform design will increase power, range, and performance and positions itself as ‘the future of transportation’.

GM marketing campaign from 2021 in which they show off their new EV design which centers around their Ultium battery platforms.

And yet, the old engineering is what made it so cheap.

One might see this cancellation as the Chevy Bolt meeting its natural end after having a good, long run. One might be inclined to commend GM for recognizing when it’s time for old technology to stop being pushed forth. But, at the same time, the fact that the Bolt was based on old EV engineering and battery chemistry is what allowed it to be priced so low. This is what made it attractive to those that would not otherwise be able to afford the latest technology but wanted to switch to an EV.

Next Steps for Consumers (and Battery Cells)

With the Chevy Bolt canceled, some are wondering what vehicle might take its place for that particular customer base.

Some also wonder how the case of the Chevy Bolt, with its recalls and eventual cancellation, will inform consumer decision-making around adopting new technologies. According to Pew Research 51 percent of people would not support a proposal to phase out gas cars and trucks. In an era when winning consumers’ trust in EVs is crucial to fleet transformation, any loss of consumer trust in EVs harms the auto industry more broadly.

How are we to balance affordability and advancement?

Battery cell technology will continue to evolve rapidly, with new advancements and innovations emerging every year. However, as the recent Chevy Bolt case demonstrates, there are still challenges and setbacks to overcome. As the EV industry grows, it is essential that companies prioritize safety and quality in their battery cell manufacturing processes. Similarly, it is important we find a balance between advancing technology while maintaining affordability. The future of electric vehicles depends on it.

A Vermont Legislator’s Chevy Bolt caught fire in 2021 after remaining plugged in after being fully charged. Image courtesy of the VT State Police made public by The Burlington Free Press.