Bad News Batteries

These days, auto safety recalls don’t get much attention. So the news that General Motors was recalling 9,000 of its 2007 Saturn mild hybrids to replace the high-voltage battery pack in each one was no more than a blip in the press.

Behind the scenes, though, it’s an expensive and annoying distraction for General Motors, and a huge blow to Cobasys, makers of the nickel-metal-hydride batteries. For six months now, GM has been forced to divert batteries it should have fitted to this year’s mild hybrids toward its dealers’ repair bays instead.

The bulk of the cars recalled, about 8,000, were ’07 Saturn Vue Green Lines (the last of the old, squarer body); the remaining 1,000 were the brand-new ’07 Saturn Aura Hybrid sedan. For 2008, the company’s Belt-Alternator Starter system was also fitted to the restyled and very popular Chevrolet Malibu, its platform mate the Aura, and a totally redesigned version of the Vue Green Line.

GM discovered the problem last fall, said spokesman Tom Wilkinson, by analyzing warranty claims data on battery packs replaced by its dealers. These days, automakers pore over claims data closely, to identify abnormal levels of claims for any given part or system. “We saw the problem, and did a root-cause analysis” with the vendor—in this case, Cobasys.

The problem turned out to be an unspecified manufacturing defect—neither GM nor Cobasys will provide more detail than that—that created hairline cracks in the plastic modules containing groups of battery cells. While hardly visible to the naked eye, the electrolyte seeping through those cracks into the overall pack housing reduced the pack’s performance—meaning the hybrid system had less power to restart the engine after stops, so the engine remained on much more of the time, compromising mileage.

Wilkinson stresses that no electrolyte leaked out of the pack housing itself, nor were there any fires or other safety issues. But when GM projected the early failure rates out over the 10-year, 150,000-mile life required of the system, it was clear the number of failures would be large. So once the problem was identified and a fix instituted at Cobasys, prudence demanded that all potentially defective packs be replaced as soon as possible.

GM phased the recalls by region, replacing packs first in the hottest climates, since high temperatures increase the stress on a pack. Wilkinson said the last batch of recall notices has just gone out to hybrid owners in the northern U.S. and Canada.

The entire episode has put a cloud over Cobasys, jointly owned by Energy Conversion Devices and Chevron Corp. The company’s long-term future was already up in the air, since GM had announced in March that its second generation of the Belt-Alternator Starter mild-hybrid system will use a lithium-ion pack supplied by Japan’s Hitachi Ltd. Now industry rumors say GM is on the verge of buying Cobasys outright, to ensure greater control over the supply of this critical hybrid component—which it must stock as a replacement part for more than 10 years.

The recall couldn’t have come at a worse time. With gas prices over $4 a gallon, small and midsize car sales have soared as full-size trucks and SUVs clog dealer lots. At those prices, the payback period on a mild hybrid system is shorter than ever, but GM is forced to trim its planned production—earlier this month, the company told Automotive News the target was 27,000—to ensure that the BAS hybrids already on the road work properly.

How does GM feel about all this? “We’re not back to where we need to be,” says GM’s Brian Corbett in measured tones, “We’re selling a lot fewer hybrids than we’d like.”


  • JoJO

    No suprise that GM managed to screw something up again

  • Bryce

    That’s why GM has had such low production numbers in the first place, to wait for all the kinks to arise. Imagine having to replace 10s of thousands of packs or more instead of just the 8 or 9 thousand they did. Maybe this will convince GM to buy CObasys outright to manage quality control and ensure production quotas.

  • Anonymous

    @JoJO: Did you bother to read the post, or did you just type your automatic knee-jerk bash-GM response? Cobasys screwed this up, not GM; GM is just left with the resulting public relations problem.

  • Bryce

    Those knee-jerk reactions spoken of seem to be very common on this website. : ( Can’t we all get along?

  • Skeptic

    No, no. The OP was right. GM would screw up a free lunch if anyone was stupid enough to give them one.

    If they were serious about hybrids, “mild” or not, they’d have figured this out in the prototype testing stage. Instead, their “production run” is so small, this slipped through.

    Their test program should have been this big so that they can catch stuff.

    How ’bout them Chevy Volts, huh??

  • Bryce

    I believe the Prius had the same initial production problems. It is just something that happens to pretty much all cars. And again, that is why initial supplies have been so low, so as to work out kinks before really ramping up production. It seems like that foresight saved them a lot of time and money in not having to replace a ridiculous number of packs.

  • steved28

    Nissan did it right. They new they couldn’t bring a hybrid to market in a timely fashion, so they leased the technology from someone who could do it right. Toyota. In the mean time they bought themselves a window to begin their own R&D. And learned a bunch from what they saw from Toyota.

  • Anonymous

    Morton Thiokol screwed up but people still yell at the name of NASA

    the same goes with GM

    “Its like some on went for the lowest bidder (Buscemi joke)”

  • sean

    Bryce, you play the blame game very well.
    GM is responsible ultimately to the buyers, and Cobasys is responsible to GM. If you buy a car and it has problems, who will you see?

  • Shines

    Ah GM tries to do what’s right. By the time all the recalls are taken care of Toyota will be delivering stop start technology with its cars. So what little gain GM had over Toyota in the “mild hybrid” market will probably be lost.

  • pedmac

    seems this article is a little dated ..
    the recall was announced a few months back ..why did hybrid cards just bring it ou today? from what i have heard the problem has been fixed .. and they Gm getting Cobasys at a very good deal because of the problem.. the timing as far as GM was good And bad for CObasys. i bet u in japan people actually support their industry here . people like to bash it ..

    night

  • Armand

    ANON:

    Actually NASA screwed up. NASA knew of the problems…they knew what the problems would cause, and they knew they’d delay the mission if they brought the problem to light. The Challenger accident was the fault of NASA…they gave the green light knowing full well they had a problem.

    I’m sure GM was most likely aware of the limitations of Cobasys’s units….yet they are using what is known in the FAA as tombstone technology….the problem is known, they are fully aware, but they do nothing until the issue becomes fatal.

  • mdensch

    pedmac: this isn’t the first time that this web site has reported stale information.

    A short time ago they ran a story about Toyota planning to set up Prius as a separate line of cars like Scion or Lexus. The “news” was more than six months old and other publications had since reported that Toyota had already begun to rethink the strategy.

    These folks get paid for doing this?

  • Ross Nicholson

    Somebody should just tell GM not to warranty the batteries. Or just don’t include them in the first place! Owners can get batteries and dealers will be happy to install them for an extra charge.

  • Anonymous

    gm is trying to drive the purchase price of Cobasys down. They can not do it without them.

  • Bryce

    I don’t think the people of this site do get paid. They certainly shouldn’t anyways. The information usually is something that I have read somewhere else. If they are getting payed, I will do it for half the cost and ten times better, cuz the release of this so called “news” is pretty pitiful.

  • pedmac

    yeap it would be nice they might give some credit .. to cobasys isntead of dumping on them.. as far as i know it was the only usa company with the forward vision to have hybrid vehicles.. the leak was def un fortunate..

  • Former GM driver

    GM has lost several generations of car buyers with the bad, no, not poor, just plain bad, cars that they have sold. I am one of them. The mere mention of GM screwing up yet again (even though this was a vendor’s problem that should have been caught in testing) produces emotional responses.

    The name you love to hate, Roger Smith, represented the worst of the corporate arrogance. Just imagine that, in one model year, GM wasted effort that could have been spent on making better cars on making no less than twenty eight (yes, 28) variations of a Q-Jet carb just to mess with the aftermarket gasket manufacturers so that they could keep the sales of replacement gaskets!

    Whether those responses are “fair” or not does not particularly matter as it is clear that those individuals are unlikely to ever again even consider purchasing a GM car.

    GM’s Pickup trucks have done comparatively well, but, as we are now seeing, the world has changed and the makers of large pickups did not change with the speed that was required.

    This report also illustrates that “getting it right” with new technology is not as simple as it may seem to those not in the industry.

    GM should at least be given credit for initiating the recall rather than leaving their customers in the wake, even though it represents lost sales of new units for which the replacement batteries were intended. At least it is a step in the right direction of dealing more forthrightly with their customers.

  • Shamontiel

    I’m reading this material to see if I want to buy a hybrid car or truck, but the comments are blowing me away. If you don’t like the way the writers write on this site, visit another website. I hate it when people just complain to see themselves onscreen. It’s very simple. Click the “x.” Anyway, to the news writer, thank you for this bit of information. When buying a hybrid or trading in my new one, I will be sure to pay attention to details about the battery. Before today, I did not know this bit of news.

  • replica bags

    That sounds like a serious problem.
    GM picks Korean LG Chem Unit to supply Volt batteries, bad news for startup A123 Systems

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