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David Pease's Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid parked in his driveway. Because of a recall from Toyota, he is unable to charge it in cold weather.Handout

David Pease was one of the few people in Ontario able to get his hands on a Toyota RAV4 Prime, a popular plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) that has an all-electric range of 68 kilometres but is in short supply.

“For me, this is a darn close perfect vehicle for our needs on the farm, [with all-wheel drive] in the winter,” says Pease, who lives in Melancthon, Ont., a rural community about 30 minutes north of Orangeville in Dufferin County. But this time of year, he has a major problem with the vehicle; because of a manufacturer’s recall on the vehicle, he is not supposed to charge it. “It’s plus-3 degrees and I have my car plugged in outside of the garage and I unplug it at night.”

Not only is Pease not supposed to charge his car at night, but he isn’t supposed to charge it at all when the temperature is below 5 degrees.

“I know there’s a risk and I am taking the risk,” he says. “I won’t be the only one taking the risk, but I hope it doesn’t come down to haunt me.”

In July, Toyota recalled more than 43,000 RAV4 Prime and Lexus NX450h+ PHEVs, citing a fire risk. Nearly 6,000 of them are in Canada. Toyota advises owners not to charge their vehicles in “cold” temperatures – that means no charging in temperatures below 5 degrees until repairs have been completed.

The problem is a faulty component that converts electricity voltage. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), under certain conditions, the component could fail and short circuit, generating enough heat to increase the risk of a vehicle fire.

Dealers will replace the DC-DC converter, free of charge. After Pease repeatedly called his local dealership and Toyota Canada’s head office over four months, he finally received an appointment at his local dealership in early January to have the battery work done on Jan. 15.

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“It’s the frustration of the whole thing. … I paid the extra money for this plug-in hybrid and now they’re saying ‘it’s a plug-in hybrid, but it’s only a plug-in hybrid in summer.’” he says.

In response to the recall, Philippe Crowe, in corporate communications at Toyota Canada Inc., wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, “Toyota takes customer safety very seriously and we are working hard on a remedy. Because this work is ongoing, we don’t yet have an exact date for its implementation.”

Toyota Canada notified Canadian owners by mail of the voluntary safety recall in September. South of the border, the NHTSA issued the recall on July 12, 2023. Transport Canada updated the recall on its website on Oct. 30, 2023.

“Automakers are regulated by the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which requires that we notify customers within 60 days after a recall is filed. Because it can take time to develop and implement a remedy, there is often a delay between the time that customers are notified and the time that a remedy becomes available. This is common in the industry,” Crowe says.

While battery expert Dean MacNeil, a senior research officer and team leader at the National Research Council of Canada, says there is reason for concern, he also downplayed the potential risks associated with this specific recall.

“This is just a piece that failed mechanically and it happens to be in an electric vehicle. The fires from batteries are rare,” MacNeil says.

He says this recall is not related to the main, high-voltage EV battery. This is an important point because the high-voltage battery contains a lot of the energy in the vehicle and presents different challenges for extinguishing a fire. Most of the time, high-voltage battery packs for PHEVs are located under the rear seats or cargo area; while the 12-volt charger, which this recall is related to, is typically in the front.

The high-voltage battery delivers power to the electric motors, while the 12-volt battery, which is also found in gas-powered vehicles, powers electrical devices such as the climate-control system and the power door locks and windows.

They are physically isolated with good separation. But “you should heed the recommendations of manufacturers,” he advises.

According to data collected from Toronto Fire Services, from January 2022 to November 2023, there were 355 vehicle fires. Only two were in electric vehicles.

Toronto’s deputy fire chief Larry Cocco doesn’t see a problem with electric vehicle fires in Toronto at this time. “I’m not saying that they don’t catch fire, but we’re not seeing an increased trend in car fires.

“I wouldn’t say electric vehicles are dangerous. They present different challenges when a fire occurs,” he says. That’s because of the batteries. If they’re damaged, punctured or ruptured, there’s a high risk of what he calls a “thermal runaway effect.”

“If there’s a bit of damage from a collision and the battery is damaged, there’s a risk that there could be a fire hours or even days later,” he warns. And because lithium-ion batteries are usually contained in a box, the design presents different challenges for first responders to put water on the cells to cool them.

Cocco says where fire departments across North America are seeing a rise in fires is in micro-mobility devices, such as e-scooters and e-bikes. In Toronto alone, there were more than 50 fires with lithium-ion batteries in 2023; all were in micro-mobility devices.

One such notable fire occurred last Sunday when fire engulfed a Toronto subway train after what Toronto Fire says was a failure of a lithium-ion battery pack used in an electric bike.

“The battery failed and went into what is known as ‘thermal runaway,’ and shortly thereafter, ignited, resulting in an intense and aggressive fire,” Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg told reporters.

Cocco, while not discussing the recent subway fire, attributes most of these fires to owners who alter their device, add more horsepower, use uncertified batteries, use different chargers, or overcharge the battery.

As for Pease, he hopes this repair next week will fix the battery issue and he’ll be able to charge again as temperatures dip.

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