Electric Car Fire Risks Are Exaggerated. But, More Data is Required To Define Verdict

Although electric cars appear to have a lower fire risk than conventional cars, Americans who are waiting for their new Volkswagens from Europe may be mistaken for thinking otherwise. Their new Volkswagens were destroyed by a spontaneous lithium-ion fire aboard the Felicity Ace car transporter ship.

Tuesday was the day that the ship went down.

Because there aren’t enough data, it is difficult to draw any conclusions about fire risk.

Concerning the fire that erupted on VW’s car transporter carrying nearly 4,000 vehicles from Germany to the U.S., a British Daily Mail report stated that Felicity Ace’s captain Joao Medes Cabecas said that lithium-ion batteries on the electric cars caught fire.

VW cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

VW stated that any comments regarding the cause at this point are speculation and will be investigated.

The battery electric vehicle revolution (BEV), is gaining momentum. However, spontaneous fires or electric car fires following accidents have been attracting media attention. You can see a photo or video of a Tesla that is very expensive.
It’s easy to assume that electric cars have a problem because they are so engulfed in flames. A bog-standard internal combustion engines (ICE) car on fire wouldn’t be featured in the news.

Both sides were enthralled by recent data. AutoinsuranceEZ analysed the National Transportation Safety Board data and found that BEVs are safer than hybrids or ICE cars. This was a popular opinion among electric car enthusiasts. AutoinsuranceEZ stated that electric cars are less likely to catch fire than other vehicles. Hybrids were the most dangerous and gasoline vehicles the least.

The data does not support such a thing, so don’t be surprised if doubters say otherwise.

Graham Conway, principal engineer with Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas said that there isn’t enough information to determine if EVs are more prone than ICE to spontaneous fire.

It is too early to draw any conclusions about EVs or spontaneous fires. It is difficult to know with certainty if we have enough data, or how the fires are reported. Conway stated that it is evident that the fire is more difficult than usual because of the energy released during the exotherm. It also takes a lot to extinguish.

Conway stated that the data did not allow for firm conclusions.

According to the NTSB data, after 41 fatal collisions involving BEVs (2.44%), 1 caught fire. According to the NTSB data, 644 vehicles caught fire after 20315 fatal collisions involving gasoline cars (3.17%). According to the NTSB data, 12 were set on fire after 543 fatal collisions involving gasoline-hybrid vehicles (Conway: 2.21 %),”).

It is statistically unwise to compare 41 crashes with 20,315 crashes and 543 crashes. If there were a 42 and collision with an EV, it would result in 4.76% of EVs, or twice the rate for hybrids. Conway stated that until the sample size and significance is equal, we can’t tell which one will be worse.

Chief technical officer at Britain’s Thatcham Research Richard Billyeald stated that EVs are generally less likely to be a fire risk, although the data is limited.

According to our latest research, the risk of an EV fire remains lower than that of ICE vehicles. The usable data is only available for five years, and the actual number of EVs still on the roads represents a small sample. This is also evident in safety testing that we conducted in the U.K. for Euro NCAP (European Auto Safety), which showed that despite strong impacts to the vehicle’s front and especially the sides, there were no thermal events.

Fire risks will decrease as battery technology improves.

“The probability is that the EV fire danger will decrease over time as the industry shifts towards solid-state batteries, technology developments that make them less vulnerable to ‘thermal ranaway’ and other catastrophic events. According to Billyeald, U.K. government statistics about possible thermal runaway events indicate that fires are not increasing or staying steady despite increased numbers of vehicles.

Oliver Petschenyk, LMC Automotive analyst, said that it is difficult to determine whether ICE cars are more or less prone than EVs to fires. ICE vehicles are most susceptible to fires from brake fluid leakage that ignites after exhaust contact and electrical short circuits. These are often design faults. An internal cell short could cause thermal runaway.

“I believe that the possibility of a vehicle’s batteries failing is decreasing.” Petschenyk stated that EVs are increasing in number and at a faster rate, so thermal events are still possible.

An EV will not cause thermal runaway in a frontal collision.

Side impact and underside puncture are two of the most dangerous things for EVs. ICE can damage cells or cause them to shorten. However, if the battery has sufficient failsafes, thermal runaway risk will be minimized. Petschenyk stated that there have been instances where EVs could ignite after an incident. This is usually due to coolant leaking into a battery, again causing cells shortening. However, the risk of this happening is decreasing as technology improves and failsafes are improved.

I believe that the greatest risk to hybrids or plug-in hybrid electric cars is their packaging. Because two powertrains must be fitted into one vehicle (ICE powertrain or EV powertrain), all components need to be packed tightly. This may mean that electrical and thermal components will need to be placed close to exhausts. Petschenyk stated that batteries are subject to a higher duty cycle than EV ones, and are charged to 100% to 100% more often and usually faster (at the cell-level), which results in faster dendrite formation.

Thatcham’s Billyeald stated that EVs present a unique problem when they catch fire.

He said that “Once an EV has caught fire, it’s more difficult to deal with.”

The fires from EV fires can burn for many days, and they often rekindle after it seems that the fire has been put out. The only way to ensure it is out is for fire-fighters to immerse themselves in a pool-like structure. Even minor damage can prove fatal. The area of damage to batteries that can reach all four corners is greater than an ICE under the hood. The cost of batteries is also high. The battery for a Jaguar I-Pace costs approximately PS70,000 ($100,000.) This is roughly half the cost of a PS35,000. Insurance costs will be high and these cars could end up being out of reach for those with the highest incomes. This would make electric cars more expensive than regular ICE cars.

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