Are EVs More Or Less Likely To Catch Fire Than Combustion Engined Cars?

DEC 7 2018 BY MARK HOVIS 80

This has been a hot topic since 2012 when two Chevy Volts reportedly caught fire and burned down garages within weeks of each other.

A little history is in order. In 2012, the NHTSA was putting the Chevy Volt through crash simulations. In one particular test, a Volt was subjected to a side impact and a simulated roll. The Volt was then placed outside in an inverted position with a fully charged battery. Though its standard practice to remove the energy in the form of gasoline from a test vehicle, the Volt was left fully charged in the inverted position. Days later, the Volt battery caught fire.

The NHTSA then ordered three batteries from Chevrolet. They began a series of impact tests on the independent batteries outside of the vehicles. The first battery produced no thermal action. The second and third caught fire. A report was released to the public and within weeks two garage fires were reported simultaneously, one in Connecticut and one in North Carolina. It would be reported months later after a thorough investigation that neither of the Volts nor the EVSEs was deemed responsible for the fires, but the media damage was done and the narrative began that EVs are susceptible to catch fire.

So, which vehicle is more likely to catch fire and are their fires equal? Maybe the closest we have to an answer is data provided by Steven Risser, senior leader for Battelle, a nonprofit research and development firm, and one of the leading experts on the risk of fires in electric vehicles.

The propensity and severity of fires and explosions from … lithium-ion battery systems are anticipated to be somewhat comparable to or perhaps slightly less than those for gasoline or diesel vehicular fuels, according to the results of an in-depth investigation into the relative fire risks of the two types of vehicles conducted by Battelle for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2017.

The National Fire Protection Association reported about 174,000 vehicle fires in the United States for 2015. Unfortunately, this data has been removed from the National Fire Protection Association. Now, these fires did not occur as easily as depicted in Hollywood, but neither have EV fires portrayed by fossil fuel sponsored news outlets. So where does the EV stand?

Tesla claims that gasoline powered cars are about 11 times more likely to catch fire than a Tesla. They claim that the best comparison is fires per 1 billion miles driven. Today, Tesla is certainly the most visible EV maker on the market. Recently, Tesla achieved two milestones: 500,000 EVs produced globally and an accumulative 10 billion EV miles. Per Elon Musk, there have been five fires per billion miles for Tesla. Most Tesla fires occur after high-speed violent crashes, like the one shown in our recent article.  It’s also worth noting that the number of Tesla fires have been reduced since it added additional metal plating to protect the battery.

So, we don’t have definitive data. We have a global number from Tesla and some U.S. numbers compiled for the NHTSA by Battelle. We also have a challenge by none other than Elon Musk who declares its EVs 11-to-1 less likely to catch fire. Steven Risser for Battelle states that EVs are probably less likely to catch fire and probably safer, but still says that more data is required.

For Tesla, with 10 billion miles, it appears that time and data are tracking in their favor. When legacy manufacturers reach a point where their profits depend on EV sales, then maybe we will get the rest of the data that EV enthusiasts already suspect: that this narrative has been a false one or “fake news” right from the start.

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80 Comments on "Are EVs More Or Less Likely To Catch Fire Than Combustion Engined Cars?"

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bro1999

Reports in the Netherlands of a Jag I-Pace going up in flames. Rut roh.
https://www.telegraaf.nl/nieuws/2889037/splinternieuwe-jaguar-brandt-uit
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G2

Considering the area where the battery is appears to be untouched, this appears to be a short in the forward motor.

Adam

Are you surprised about this? I mean Jaguar isn’t exactly know for their great electronics.

Cypress

😂

BoltEV (was SparkEV)

Solid numbers rather than Musky opinion would be helpful. IMO, older ICE cars are far more susceptible to fires than old EV. Don’t ask me how I know old ICE easily catch fire, and don’t drive into a gas station when the car is flaming (also don’t ask how I know).

Steven Loveday

Haha please share!

BoltEV (was SparkEV)

Let’s just say that 30,000 volt arc generator with oxydized contacts anywhere near old worn out rubber hose carrying gasoline is a potent combination for panic, not once, not twice, not three times… I’m pretty well experienced to expert level in this field.

Nix

Bad coil/coil wires and fuel leaks? Let me guess, older dodge/jeep/Chrysler vehicles?

BoltEV (was SparkEV)

I avoided Al Bundy car, Dodge and relatives. They were VW, Nissan, Chevy, Honda. Volvo I sold to a friend burned the following week, but technically not under me. There were also motorcycles and lawnmowers in flame, though minor.

REXtoCheckMate

BMW too has had it’s problems with gas fires lately, and sadly.

Robert Weekley

So, been driving since you got the last Model T from Ford? Or, generally bought and drove Older cars?

However, I know of one newly bought vehicle, driven maybe no more than 500 to 1,000 miles since purchased, that the owners went to visit friends in my home town, in the 1970’s, that caught fire, while parked on the street, about 20 to 30 minutes after their 180 mile drive to their friends house! It was the sound of the Fire Truck outside their window that got their attention!

I did witness 1 other car in traffic light up while driving on the Freeway, on the 401 across Toronto, about 20 years back, and it was under 5 minutes for that “Car-B-Q” to reach “Well Done”, and fully “Charred!”

BoltEV (was SparkEV)

In college, I was driving beaters and swapping them often. It was cheaper to sell/scrap than to fix stuff I couldn’t fix in parking lot. Kinda got used to the idea of cars catching fire by the time I finished undergrad.

Andy

Agreed there. After Musks AP claims that didn’t stand up to scrutiny it’s probably best not to put much weight to them.

He is after all trying to promote his business interests, and while there is nothing wrong with that, it needs to be considered.

Allan

How many of the 150-175,000 car fires every year are EVs? Older Shmolder, what matters is the statistics from real life, and they say it’s a 30 ICE vs 3 EVs ratio so far according to the government.

I think it’s just people are used to normal fires, it doesn’t covered in the news because it happens too often and has been going on for 100 years. EVs are new, so anything about EVs is covered, good or bad. It can cause irrational hysteria, new tech triggers technophobia until the following generation of consumers makes it mainstream.

viriato

And how old are the ICe cars vs the EV’s?. Is obvious that a car with 20 years, due the bad conservation for example, and the pass of many years, cand make more probable that this car burn than an electric car with only few years. The key is to compare ICE and EV cars, with the same age, not cars with 30 years and new cars.

REXtoCheckMate

Old fuel lines, old electrical connections, leaking cracking parts on ICE that aren’t on EV’s gives us the 10/1 ratio.

Pushmi-Pullyu

“After Musks AP claims that didn’t stand up to scrutiny…”

Tesla’s claims regarding the proven and unquestionable benefit of Autopilot+Autosteer (not just AP alone) in significantly reducing the accident rate in Tesla cars (where “accident” is measured as airbag deployment), certainly does stand up to scrutiny. What doesn’t stand up is the way the statistics were misinterpreted by careless reporters — and readers — who didn’t practice critical thinking.

https://cleantechnica.com/2018/05/04/tesla-to-report-autopilot-crash-statistics-quarterly/

REXtoCheckMate

And yet, he’s got the data you can’t refute.
Shocking you can’t be convinced.
Maybe your “facts” have to come from “Seeking Alpha”.

antrik

So what exactly does it tell us if older combustion cars catch on fire more often? That junking combustion cars after a few years would make them perhaps about as safe as EVs? Great…

sri

Musk has some data. You are providing anecdotes and opinions.

BoltEV (was SparkEV)

Spoken like a true Musky faithful. Claiming 11 times better is no data. I can claim BoltEV 11 times more reliable than all other EV (and maybe even Tesla), and it’d be true. Bolt is only 2 years old while all EV including golf carts have been around for decades.

As for my opinion, quite literally I said “in my opinion”. But consider that EV do not vibrate the sh*t out of wires and gas carrying rubber hoses like the ICE cars do, and it’s pretty reasonable that old EV are less fire prone than old ICE.

REXtoCheckMate

Apparently you have reading comprehension issues.
Musk numbers are Fires per Million Miles Driven.
Those are hard facts.

BoltEV (was SparkEV)

Apparently, you still think million miles driven by new car vs 50 year old car is valid comparison.

viriato

Maybe old ICE cars are cars from 20 years old to one hundred?. But how many old electric cars and how old they are to make a realistic statistical data?.

BoltEV (was SparkEV)

Yes, and that’s exactly why I said I need data. Just throwing out a number like 11 times means nothing.

David Gould

Also, don’t ask me about old cracked power steering hoses just above hot exhaust manifolds, or even about backfire through the carb. Same car, burned twice.

ffbj

As usual Musk wildly overstates the case. I think it’s closer to 10-1 ICE fires vrs EV. I’ve seen a lot car fires as I was on the road for 20 years. Probably 25 or so, it usually does end well. Though I put one out once, but cut my finger on the release for fire extinguisher.

amt

And Here I Thought Only Tesla’s Caught Fire ,……………….. 🙁 …. 🙂 ….

Bill Howland

Actually I THINK its only x’s and s’s. They were making fun of the cars on the late night comic circuit. Everyone will hoot and holler now – but obvious facts are such. X’s and S’s catch fire way more often than 2 year old ice’s – although BMW ain’t so great in the Ice world. Haven’t read about model 3’s, and the Roadsters were also good.

IF jags are catching fire – magna needs to definitely get their act together. Would like to know the proximate cause, if there is one.

I THINK only the 2011 early volts were a problem since they recalled all of them and put sidebars in to protect the battery. They also ‘corrected’ a non-problem that allowed the occasional use cord to work fire-free with a defective receptacle.

G2

More FUDly FUD.

Bill Howland

No fear, uncertainty, or doubt here man. Its you guys who in general deny reality. And most of you can’t talk about subjects with any specificity since you don’t know dip.

BoltEV (was SparkEV)

Interesting point. There are almost as many Leaf, how are they in terms of fires? Any stats?

Dave100e

Where does Musk get his data from? You can’t just pick random numbers out of the air and then make claims based on them, that’s not how it works.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that most fires are caused by electrical faults, and rarely due to the energy storage. If we are going to put a number on the difference we also need to break the data down from vehicle fires overall, and only use the data from fires that include the fuel tank or HV batteries. We should probably then break that number down to accidents caused by the energy storage versus fires that caused the energy storage to ignite.

antrik

Number of combustion car fires is known from public government statistics. Number of Tesla fires is known from Tesla’s data, and can be verified from media reports. No magic there.

Dave100e

If he only has data for Tesla then he needs to clearly distinguish between Tesla and EV’s.

cfox

You can’t just accuse someone of making up numbers, as you did. You asked “Where does Musk get his data from?” That would be a perfectly fine place to end your message — you are asking for where he sources his data. No assumptions there.

And then you spoil that and go on to assume he’s making them up. Boo.

Pushmi-Pullyu

Yup. A false argument based on circular reasoning: Assume without evidence that the figure he cites is wrong, then castigate him for citing a false figure.

Dave100e

That’s the point. There is no evidence. Nobody has the statistics, it actually says in the article “we don’t have definitive data”. He has statistics for Tesla, but Tesla isn’t all EV’s and can’t be used to represent them. So he is literally making them up by assuming all EV’s are the same.

Pushmi-Pullyu

I think most EV fires are caused by either physical damage from a violent vehicle accident, or by the charging equipment rather than the PEV (Plug-in EV) itself. In the latter case, it’s far more often for a fire to start in the wall charger or the house wiring, or a fire to start due to an inadequate/ damaged extension cord used to charge the car.

Fires actually starting inside a PEV which are not associated with damage in an accident, are quite rare indeed. It has happened, but very seldom.

You are right to point out the important distinction between a fire which starts at another point and spreads to a PEV, rather than a fire which starts in the PEV itself.

Kevin C

What is the word on the street about Leafs and Bolts involved in high speed collisions and fires?
I suspect they’re remarkably safe, but would like to see data.

Nix

I don’t think either of those cars can reach triple digit speeds, so please specify what you mean by “high speed”?

ModernMarvelFan

80 or 90 mph is considered as high speed by law enforcement and safety designers.

I don’t remember any fires of Bolt or LEAF crash at those speed.

REXtoCheckMate

As batteries don’t explode in a crash and in ICE they do, well…

Andy

While it is not fire related, one thing to consider when discussing crashes is that a LOT of first responders will not come to your aid in a crash in an EV until the electrical risk has been isolated. It’s fairly easy to see/smell if an ICE vehicle is about to go up in flames, but it’s a lot harder to see if there’s a potentially life threatening electrical short in an EV.

Perhaps this is an overblown risk, but it’s something that’s taught and may well see paramedics/first responder first aiders waiting for the fire service to turn up before helping, instead of going straight in.

earl colby pottinger

On the other hand, it seems in most Tesla crashes the people in the car can just walk away from the accident.

Andy

Sure, but Tesla aren’t the only manufacturer out there, and people will still need help.

Hopefully there will be some studies in future that will prove or disprove the issue (and if there is an actual issue there may be workarounds to solve it), but it’s a concern right now.

G2

You’ve nicely demonstrated how FUD works, Andy.
Throw up a hypothetical problem without any knowledge or refs and just let the Fear Uncertainty and Doubt seep into the minds of the unknowing.
However, THIS audience knows BS FUD when it reads it.
No LICE cash for you.

Pushmi-Pullyu

“…but it’s a concern right now.”

No, it’s not. Whether or not that’s intentional on your part, this is a perfect example of “concern trolling”.

What you’re saying boils down to “EVs are guilty until proven innocent”.

The evidence we have strongly indicates that when it comes to the hazard of fire, you’re far safer in a plug-in EV than in a gasmobile. We shouldn’t ignore the evidence we have just because it’s less than 100% complete. News flash: In the real world, evidence is never 100% complete! Humans always have to make conclusions based on limited evidence.

M Hovis

Right on Pushmi!

Bill Howland

Please don”t join the ‘echo chamber’ crew of people who just all say the same thing – sometimes newsmen call them the MIGHTY WurliTzer since those pipes all sing the same note.

I was legitimately concerned the first time I saw the Model “S” charging facility back in 2012 and thought to myself “These guys can’t be serious”, and then confirmed it when I saw the thing overheating at a Tesla Service Center no less.

((In the interim, Tesla made 3 big changes to GREATLY increase the safety), and now uses a different product – so the noisemakers coming out with uninformed baloney could be asked – if it was PERFECT from the start why was there a need for a change? — But anyway it is to TESLA’s credit that they at least made the change).

Fire is never something to joke around with, since in the general case things get very bad faster than most people think they can, and there is an additional explosion risk here also. I’m quite surprised you don’t realize this Mr. Hovis.

M Hovis

I know you are not a Pushmi fan Bill, but I am responding to his first sentence. Big oil has made a false narrative about EV fires and sooner or later the data is gonna prove this out. If you are concerned about safety, stop supporting fossil fuel driven administration.

Nix

Actually, first responders have been dealing successfully with electric drivetrains since Hybrids were first introduced in the 1990’s.

Your FUD was proven wrong way back when it was used as an attack against Hybrids 20 years ago. Your FUD is so old it is retro. You get the prize for reviving the oldest dead meme!!!

sri

Hybrids have high voltage circuits and they have been around for 2 decades. I am sure fire fighters are just letting the occupants in hybrid accidents die /S

Pushmi-Pullyu

Wow, as a concern troll you’re an overachiever!

Li-ion battery fires take awhile to get going. Usually the car will warn the occupants to exit the car for their safety. Unlike gasmobile fires, the car isn’t likely to burst into flames within seconds after an accident.

To date, I have seen claims of only one single accident in which it’s claimed that people still alive after a severe accident in a Tesla car were trapped and unable to escape before being consumed by fire. And I am far from certain that even that one case is true, since it’s supposedly based on reports from onlookers, and I think we all know how unreliable eyewitness accounts are… especially second- or third-hand accounts relayed from eyewitnesses.

What is not in doubt is all the first-hand reports from people who had a severe accident in their Tesla car, and were able to calmly get out, without any drama, minutes before the car caught fire.

antrik

The official report actually gave fire as the cause of death for one of the occupants, and fire as well as wounds from impact for the other. (I.e. the other would have died anyway AIUI?)

Of course it should be noted that in crash of that severity, in almost any other vehicle all three occupants would have died from the impact, fire or not…

And of course it should not be forgotten that several hundred people die each year form combustion car fires in the US alone.

James

A google search finds:
https://money.cnn.com/2018/05/17/news/companies/electric-car-fire-risk/index.html

It’s about 11 times more likely per billion miles.

From the article, “The biggest difference is the time it takes to ignite. Gasoline fires start almost immediately when gasoline comes in contact with a spark or flame, and spreads rapidly. Battery fires typically take some time to achieve the heat necessary to start the fire.”

QCO

The ICE industries were lucky they did not have social media in 1910… Fires would have been the least of their concerns.

Reading the article, it seems the question has progressed to not whether batteries are safer than ICE, but by how much. So we are past the critical discussion point.

Regardless, there is still plenty of opportunity to build bad batteries, bad packs, and bad mechanical protection (remember the exploding cell phone batteries). Therefore safety testing and certification will have to play a role somewhere in the mix going forward.

F150 Brian

I have no detailed stats to work from. From personal experience, both driving and having worked in an auto dismantler, nearly all ICE fires I’ve seen (as few as they have been) are not gas tank related. They are almost always related to hot exhaust, often with transmission fluid sprayed on them from failed cooling lines or simply overheating leaked oil that’s built up on the engine block.
These are all preventable with proper maintenance. They are also all related to older vehicles.
Old wiring that is starting to corode is a problem today, and will be a problem for EVs as they age.
I hope EVs are more safe, but comparing safety of a new EV with old poorly maintained ICE vehicles wouldn’t provide meaningful results.

Viking79

Fires can be a problem in newer ICE vehicles too, BMW had to recall a bunch (up to 1.6 Million worldwide) diesels for fire risk from leaky fluids. I think Korea alone had 40 fires in less than a year from this issue. As you say though, it is fluid and hot exhaust related and in general you are probably right that age and maintenance is probably larger issue. Good thing EVs don’t have hot exhausts 🙂

Cypress

I’ve read that A major source of ICE fires is the engine coolant dripping or leaking onto hot engine or exhaust components.

antrik

Sure, cable fires can happen in an EV just like in a combustion car. The other problems you described however are clearly specific to combustion cars.

phEVfan

The only car fire I ever had was due to my transmission blowing a seal and squirting tranny fluid onto a hot exhaust manifold, causing it to ignite. Neither tranny fluid nor an exhaust manifold exist on an EV.

Bill Howland

The tranny fluid certainly does. It is what lubricates the gearbox in my Bolt ev, and most people would consider that an electric car – even the unreasonable ones who call cars like the VOLT non-electric since it is only electric 90% of the time. But point taken that normal operating temperatures are somewhat lower than the flash point of tranny fluid in a BEV.

Alex

Elon Musk numbers are also fishy.
He never considers age and price of the vehicle.
He does that regarding safety and does it regarding fires.
I’m not saying that EVs have higher risk, but we can’t compare cars with an average price of $30k and 8 years of age, with cars that have an average price of $60k and 3 years of age.

What seems obvious is that current batteries are problematic when they’re damaged – do crashes can pose a higher risk.

(My numbers don’t try to be very accurate)

Bill Howland

The curious thing here is, the Model 3 seems to be even at this early stage somewhat safe – I haven’t heard of any large numbers of fires of them – not like the S’s or X’s where they were so commonplace that late night comics made jokes about them.

The Roadster was good also – I don’t recall a single instance of a fire in that vehicle.

X’s and S’s I wonder why are so different – every fire you see of them is not well behaved at all and projectiles seem to be shooting out of the battery, either perpendicular to the car or else through the seats and passengers.

AS far as ICE fires being much HOTTER, dream on folks. The guy whose Tesla “S” went off the cliff got so hot it cremated his TEETH, so forget finding a skeleton, there weren’t any teeth left either. Now THAT’s HOT.

antrik

You fail at statistics. Considering the number of Roadsters sold — and the low mileage this type of car generally gets — compared to the amount of S and X versus a few dozens incidents total, it’s obvious the average number of fire incidents for the Roadster should be expected to be way below one.

REXtoCheckMate

Where’s your statistics that Roadster’s have low mileage?

antrik

It’s pure conjecture on my part, based on the kind of use this type of car generally sees, exacerbated by the fact that the Tesla Roadster didn’t have fast charging, making it entirely useless for long trips.

(My conclusion would be still valid though even if Tesla Roadsters actually saw similar mileage as Model S and X…)

Bill Howland

Conjecture assumes someone is able to make an EDUCATED guess, which you obviously cannot do. The Roadster battery’s best protection was the humans that sat in front of it.

Pushmi-Pullyu

Yes, the risk of a fire in an EV is significantly greater following a severe crash. News flash: The same is true of the risk of fire in a gasmobile.

You are merely assuming that older EVs will pose a greater risk of fire hazard, with no evidence at all to support that assumption. Some production plug-in EVs have been on the road since 2008, and fully mass-produced ones since 2010.

Where is the evidence that older PEVs are more prone to fire than new ones? There isn’t any.

Alex

I think my numbers are optimistic for EVs. That is saying that the average age of cars is probably less than 3 years. In case of Tesla average age is probably a lot less.
I’m not assuming a thing. What I’m saying is that you can’t compare fires and safety of cars without accounting for age and price. If you disagree on that, it’s your opinion.

Pushmi-Pullyu

Those skeptical of claims for the superiority of EVs like to point out that the very low incidence of fires in PEVs (plug-in EVs) are partly a result of the fact that there are a lot of older gasmobiles on the road, but no mass-produced EVs older than 2010.

While that’s true, and while it’s also true that older gasmobiles are more prone to engine oil leaks and other things likely to cause fires, I have yet to see any evidence that older EVs are more prone to fire than newer ones.

Last I saw, the evidence was that gasmobiles are more likely than PEVs to catch fire at a ratio of about 3-to-1. That includes all car fires, not just those immediately following an accident. The initial 10-to-1 (or 11-to-1, as Musk claimed) ratio was probably an erroneous conclusion based on a very small sample size.

And why did the National Fire Protection Association remove the data on car fires from their site? I don’t know what the reason was, but somehow I doubt the removal was motivated by support for the EV revolution! (◣_◢)

antrik

The last number I saw for EVs versus combustion cars in general was 5:1… 11:1 is the number claimed for Tesla specifically.

REXtoCheckMate

Also, Gas Tanks Explode in Crashes.

viriato

Most of ICE fires, are due electrical. So an electric car for me is more risky. But this don’t must to be equal to unsafe. Is the start point of a new technlogy, so the experience and tha analysis of the accidents and incidents, will improve the safety of the electric cars.

antrik

In spite of EVs dealing with much more electrical power, I’m not convinced the danger of electrical fires is actually any higher. All the 12 V wiring is pretty much the same. EVs get a few metres of high-voltage wiring, but combustion cars have high-powered circuits for the starter, which are probably about as dangerous…

REXtoCheckMate

Hybrid’s also have had high-voltage wiring and they do not show any increase in fire risk.

M Hovis

Most EV fires occur when there is a thermal event in the battery. It is rare for this to happen without a puncture or deformity caused in a battery cell typically as a result of a crash and a violent one at that.

Fuel system leaks are actually the #1 cause of ICE fires. Electrical comes in at #2. Here is a list of the top 10 ways an ICE can catch fire. https://insideevs.com/op-ed-top-10-causes-of-automobile-fires-ev-vs-ice/

Forced Volt->Bolt Conversion

Dollars-to-doughnuts that substandard DIY installs of chargers are going to be the more significant and life-threatening problem here, not on-the-road fires.

As to on-the-road, one can scamper away from a burning battery but being doused in flaming gasoline is a different matter. There’s a category difference between a liquid fuel fire and a burning battery.

Rightofthepeople
Quick and funny personal story to share on this topic. The first week I owned my Model 3 I got more questions about the vehicle at work than I imagined possible. Most people were curious and positive, but this one lady said something like “it’s an electric car huh? You mean like those ones that catch fire all the time? What are you gonna do when it catches fire?” Now she was being funny but she had seen YouTube videos and she really did believe EVs were VERY likely to catch fire. I simply asked her “well, are you concerned that you are driving around with 10 – 15 gallons of highly explosive and toxic liquid fuel in a plastic tank in the back of your car?” Then I told her that based on available data, gas cars were actually more likely to catch fire than EVs. She said she had never seen a gas car on fire, and I laughed, and we both went back to work. So the next day, and I mean literally the next day, I was driving to the office and as I approached I saw smoke from a distance. i got closer and realized… Read more »