As It Happens·Q & A

Chevy Bolt owner says battery-fire warning means there's nowhere in neighbourhood to safely park

Neil Wintle decided to buy a Chevy Bolt to reduce his carbon footprint but now he feels misled, because the car is at risk of catching on fire. "It has turned out to be none of the things I thought I was getting when I bought it," he said.

Arizona resident Neil Wintle says the response from GM is 'not very reassuring'

Arizona resident Neil Wintle is frustrated after learning of GM's warning that he should park his Chevy Bolt electric vehicle at least 50 feet (15 m) from any buildings or other cars, due to the risk it could catch fire. (Jackson Coleman)

Read Story Transcript

Neil Wintle decided to buy a Chevrolet Bolt to reduce his carbon footprint and show others it was possible to make the switch to an electric vehicle but now says he feels misled, because the car is at risk of catching fire. 

In August, General Motors expanded a recall to include all Bolt model years because of the risk of battery fires. They also advised hundreds of thousands of owners that they should park their electric cars outside after charging, and not charge them indoors overnight.

Now, the manufacturer has issued a new warning that Bolt owners should park 15 metres away from other cars in parking garages, and only park on the top level.

But that is complicating life for Bolt owners, including Wintle, who lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and still needs to drive his car to get to work. 

"I can't do what they're asking me to do and still have it meet the definition of a car," he told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Here is part of their conversation.

Neil, is there anywhere you can safely park your Chevy Bolt without worrying it will start a fire?

Not anywhere near me that I can think of. I would have to drive a pretty significant distance here in the Phoenix area to find somewhere where I wouldn't be near a structure or another car.

What are they worried about if you do park too close to a car?

Well, to be honest, I think they're worried that they'll be liable for the other vehicles [if] they get burned up.

A 2020 Chevrolet Bolt EV is displayed at the 2020 Pittsburgh International Auto Show in Pittsburgh. A new warning issued by the car's maker tells drivers to park 15 metres away from other cars in parking garages, and to park on the top floor of the garage when possible. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

How do you comply with these rules and these instructions as you drive your Chevy Bolt?

I literally can't. As much as I want to kind of do what I can to protect, you know, the safety of other people's property, I would just have to go find a big empty parking lot, maybe at a big, no longer occupied, big box store and just leave it there, you know, in order to not put anybody at risk. But in terms of it being functional as a vehicle, I can't do what they're asking me to do and still have it meet the definition of a car.

Are you actually using it as your car? Do you drive it?

I have to, yes. I work at a little non-profit that's a resource centre for parents raising children with disabilities, and I work in the office two days a week, so I have to drive over there. And I just park as far away from any other vehicles as I can in the parking garage, in an area that, you know, seems the least likely to do significant damage, away from the building.

I just — I mitigate the best I can because I am anxious about it. And it does make me nervous. But also I have to have a car to drive. And I've reached out to Chevrolet and GM to share this with them and ask if maybe I could have a rental car while they work this out and they've stopped responding.

(As It Happens has requested comment from General Motors. "We certainly apologize," Dan Flores, a company spokesman told Bloomberg about the fire risk. "We have hundreds of people at both companies working around the clock to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.")

It has turned out to be none of the things I thought I was getting when I bought it.- Chevy Bolt owner Neil Wintle


Being told that your car might spontaneously combust at any time, that is something that most people can't even imagine, and you have kids, right? So does it keep you up at night worrying that your car might catch fire?

Well, I have to rationalize, right? So I tell myself, 'Well, none of the cars have caught fire while driving. So the chances of it happening while myself or my kids are in the car so far seems to be very small.'

But, you know, those are the things I have to tell myself to make myself comfortable with it, you know, and my kids are like, ... 'Do we need to be worried that the car is going to catch on fire while we're driving?' And all I can tell them is, you know, 'Well, it's never happened yet.' That's not very reassuring.

This summer GM expanded the recall of Chevrolet Bolts to include more than 140,000 of the electric vehicles due to a fire risk. (Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press)

GM is saying this ... defect that they've found is only in a small number of cars. So is that any comfort to you?

Well, not really, because the number of cars it is apparently in increases by the week, as more of these fires occur.

It's a bit of Russian roulette, right? I mean, it's maybe only a small number, but you don't know if you've got one of them.

I don't know if I've got one of them because I can't do all the things that Chevrolet is asking me to do, to kind of mitigate the risk. That makes me feel like I probably am a bit higher risk. And again, the percentage of cars that seem to have the defect is going up by the day, it feels like.

You wrote a, I guess, a bit of a tongue-in-cheek remark on Twitter that at this point it would be better if your car did catch on fire. What did you mean by that?

GM made a very disingenuous buyback offer. You know, I was going through that process, I had learned through reading on forums online that, you know, GM was offering to buy back some of the Bolts. And so I was interested in at least getting the offer and finding out... what they were trying to do to rectify the situation or how they could help me out.

So I went all the way through the process and what they offered me wouldn't even cover the cost [of] the remaining balance of the loan. ... So I would have to come out of pocket to pay off the difference between what they offered me and what the loan is, and that's just to not have a car.

Oh, my gosh. And what motivated you in the first place to buy an electric car?

I really wanted to reduce my carbon footprint and do good for the world. I felt like electric cars is kind of the direction that the world is going. And I wanted to show people in my circle that, you know, it's here and we can do it. And it's a practical thing and you can make it work just like I did.

So I traded it in my trusty 2013 Honda Fit, that I paid off and got a used 2017 Bolt for a good price. And it just, all the numbers lined up, it lined up with my values as far as, you know, environmental protection. So that was really what motivated me to buy it. And it has turned out to be none of the things I thought I was getting when I bought it.

Q & A written by Andrea Bellemare. Interview with Neil Wintle produced by Chris Harbord. This interview has been edited and condensed.