Exploring And Understanding The Fire Risk For Electric Cars

JUN 9 2018 BY STEVEN LOVEDAY 64

“A battery-powered vehicle having a fire incident is newsworthy. A gasoline-powered vehicle having a fire is newsworthy only if it stops traffic.”

Above are the words of Steven Risser, a leading expert in electric vehicle fire risk and senior research leader at Battelle (non-profit research firm).

Following one headline after another about Tesla vehicle crashes and electric car fires, many people have drawn the conclusion the EVs are a fire risk. However, this has not been proven true. In fact, they are most likely safer than ICE cars, however, it’s impossible at this point to say that statement is 100 percent true.

There are many variables involved, every situation is different, and the number of electric versus gas car crashes – for the purposes of investigation and research – is minuscule in comparison. Electric cars make up only a tiny portion of vehicles on the road today, and mass-produced EVs are just beginning to come into play. It may be years before there’s enough hard data to make valid comparisons yet. However, current data already points to EVs being safer.

Batelle conducted an in-depth study of the fire risk associated with both types of vehicles for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It concluded:

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.

Statistics show that there was a vehicle fire about every one to three minutes in the U.S. in 2015. That added up to a total of about 174,000 vehicle fires. Of course, almost zero were electric cars. Yes, there were very few EVs on the road, but still, based on the information, there should have at least been a measurable number of EV fires. According to Tesla’s data (via CNN Money):

 . . . gasoline powered cars are about 11 times more likely to catch fire than a Tesla. It says the best comparison is fires per 1 billion miles driven. It says the 300,000 Teslas on the road have been driven a total of 7.5 billion miles, and about 40 fires have been reported. That works out to five fires for every billion miles traveled, compared to a rate of 55 fires per billion miles traveled in gasoline cars.

The Batelle study also points out that there have been spontaneous fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in other products like laptops, cell phones, and even passenger jets. However, electric vehicle fires have been caused by a crash or obvious damage to the battery pack. Tesla goes on to explain that its battery packs rarely “incur serious damage” aside from the occurrences during a very severe accident.

Lithium-ion battery pack fires may take longer to start and to spread than gasoline fires. If there is damage to a cell, it may begin to build up heat and ignite chemicals in other cells over time. This is called “thermal runaway.” We’ve seen in many EV crashes that the driver has been able to exit the car and there didn’t seem to be a fire initially, though later a fire may have started and proven extremely hot and difficult to put out. Additionally, we’ve seen EVs removed from a crash site and then start on fire later.

The most promising news related to the study is that most fire risk associated with electric cars – which already seems to be minor in comparison to gas cars – can likely be a curtailed even further with new battery technology. Risser concluded:

Gasoline is a very risky material. We have had 130 years of designs and experience to make a gasoline powered vehicle as safe as possible. We’re still at early stages of understanding how to make lithium-ion batteries safe.

Source: CNN Money

Categories: Crashed EVs, General

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64 Comments on "Exploring And Understanding The Fire Risk For Electric Cars"

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Darth

One major difference is that gas tanks are in the rear of the car between the wheels, the safest location and least likely to be damaged in a crash. Batteries are under the passenger compartment and can be damaged in high speed front end crashes.

Of course many fires, probably most start from a ruptured fuel line in the engine compartment spilling fuel onto hot exhaust manifolds or arcing from damaged 12v systems.

Bobish

Both ICE fuel tank and EV batteries are placed away from the crumble zones front and rear.

Dave

Many Tesla Model S have caught fire without a crash that exposed the battery cells. One in Seattle here that was a dr. had his S catch fire while near the hospital on Highway 167, Tesla gave him a new car, and had him sigh an nda, about the fire, then brought out their own version of the events leading up to the fire. wink wink

G2

Anecdotal, or do you have a reference?

John

The Big 3 don’t make you sign an NDA for their ICE fires because they’d run out of ink and paper..

Dave

I have yet to actually see a modern Ice vehicle catch on fire due to the fuel, or tank. I have seen Brake fires, transmission fires, and electrical fires, all of which could happen in an EV too..

John

EV’s don’t have transmissions and use brakes about half as much as ICE due to re-gen. Neighbor next to my in-laws lost his entire house due to a fuel leak from his ’61 ‘Vette. Went to shower, turned on the hot water and BOOM- up went the garage. You can spin it however you want, Dave- ICE fires happen a lot. Included in with ICE are gas station fires:

https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Fire-statistics-and-reports/Fire-statistics/Fires-by-property-type/Business-and-mercantile/Fires-at-US-Service-stations

Read the NFPA article- 60% of the 5000+ gas station fires per year in the U.S. are from VEHICLE FIRES. Now, they don’t specify what type of vehicle, but I’m gonna go out on a limb on this one and guess that they’re likely ICE vehicles.

Dave

EV’s have a reduction gearbox (speed reducer), and brakes usually do not catch fire under normal operation, it is more if one sticks, it happens more on trucks and heavy vehicles.

Dave

John, that is silly… Especially from a fireman… ??

John

What do you mean?

MDEV

Russian trolls are getting better on their stories.

John

You can block EMF with tin foil.. (so you should be safe)

Dave

Here is the Dr in Seattle and his commuting BBQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0kjI08n4fg

And A Tesla on a test drive in France

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifaH7uzkMT8

Mark.ca

Many = 2?
Such big troll you are, dude! I feel stupid just replying to your post, that’s how contagious it is.

Dave

Posting real verifiable data about fires in a thread with this topic is not trolling, even if it goes against your agenda. Sorry Mark, Tesla Model S, has experienced more fires per 1000 cars built then any comparable model of the same model year and price category… That ICE, BEV, or others. just another inconvenient Tesla truth. I think its right up there in total fatalities too…

ffbj

Yeah, like the Pinto. Gas tank in the rear, unlikely to catch on fire as the result of a crash. Brilliant analysis.
The Death of the Pinto:
http://www.autonews.com/article/20030616/SUB/306160770/lee-iacoccas-pinto:-a-fiery-failure

John

Steve Loveday- is there a way you can block this clown from this site? InsideEVs used to be an informative/information sharing comment board where folks were respectful, looks like idiots like this have to ruin it for everyone.

James

Let’s compare those Teslas to cars same age and same class, then a Tesla is 11 times more likely to catch fire

Bobish

And if one is named James the likelihood that he is farting right now is 11 times higher than a cheese on fire 😉

Viriato

Traditional cars have decades of safety development and evolution. New technology has new risks and we are learning how to control them.

David Hrivnak

How about the late Model BMWs being recalled for starting 40 fires. https://abcnews.go.com/US/bmw-recalls-million-vehicles-fire-risk/story?id=50922136

PS there are also about 1,000,000 tesla on the road during the recall period do there is an apples to apples.

Dave

Wow, 1M Teslas? Thats interesting, because only 325K teslas have been delivered since the company started, for the record BMW delivered 350K 3 series in the last 12 months.

David Hrivnak

Sorry you are right likely under 400,000 tesla’s Not the road. The 1,000,000 is the number of EVs in the USA.

Dave

I hope everyone takes notice that the BMW recalls are last generation cars and model years before the Tesla S and X were released. 2006 to 2011 models, and over 4M cars of exposure, compared to Tesla model S at 150K for Model S, which has had more then its share of fires.

Cecil T

Data?

Dave

I have said this many times. When you compare Tesla fires to the entire automotive fleet, that is very biased because the fleet includes 1972 Pinto’s, and 1970’s GM Pickups which have more then their share of fires. If we compare Tesla’s to 2012 to current luxury cars that would be a better comparison… Same with Elon’s quoted safety numbers, he is comparing to the general fleet which still has a lot of cars without seatbelts or airbags, crumple zones, or safety cage construction. Example, I recently saw a tragic crash between and 1967 Chevelle, and a modern Toyota Camry. The man driving the Chevelle was killed, but the Camry occupants barely had bumps and bruises.

A separate comparison I would like to see is the Tesla S compared to other EV’s. I do not have any statistics, but I think the Tesla S is the highest fire risk BEV on the road… And the 2nd place car is not even close…

ffbj

What garbage. So how many Pintos are left on the road? Not that many. Btw the specific point is about fires not safety in general. We all know that Tesla makes the safest cars on the road, and that cars are safer now than they were decades ago, but your argument is specious and without merit.

Dave

Tesla makes the safest cars? really. European testing would disagree with you, as would the IIHS in the USA… I think that is Elon talk, keep saying it until people believe it.

No Tesla is an IIHS best safety pick, ditto in Europe…

Will

I have to second what Dave said. The Euro NCAP did NOT find Tesla to be the safest cars. NCAP is FAR more stringent, demanding and obsessive than the NHTSA or whatever your American testing body is called. Don’t get me wrong, the Model S scored very well, but it certainly wasn’t top.

Djoni

OK not the best, but one of the safest.
Now I fix it, pass on.

Dave

That might be true enough…

Mike

We already have safe lithium batteries: LiFePO4 chemistry batteries unfortunately are a little less energy dense and a little more expensive for the same size. To sell a Bolt at the same price using these batteties, it would probably only have a range of 160 miles instead of 240 (number pulled out of my backside, someone else could probably give an exact figure).

Dave

Yes, that is the cells BYD uses, they are great for heavy applications, Buses, and Trucks, because they have great charge cycle life, but they are a bit heavy for their energy capacity.

PeterO

I don’t care about fires per mile. The statistic I want is fires per accident. Am I wrong? Do we have that?

Dave

Tesla’s catch on fire with no accident… One is a dr here in Seattle, and the other on a test drive in France

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0kjI08n4fg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifaH7uzkMT8

Mark.ca

And ice don’t? I had one on my street 2 years ago that baked overnight.

Dave

Of course ICE cars burn… but when you compare the incident rate of Tesla S to other luxury cars in the same class and model year, it think the number would be shocking.

Jin_NJ

A huge difference that Tesla seems to always ignore when comparing EV to ICE vehicle fires is the age of the fleets. Older vehicles are more likely to catch on fire as fuel lines rust, etc. Does someone have data that accounts for vehicle age?

G2

The desperation of the LICE fanboyz is evident in the replies to this story.

John

As always, the exception is what catches folks’ attention, NOT the norm. As a firefighter, I point out to naysayers all the time that I’ve fought multiple ICE fires in ONE day before- it’s so common no one even pays attention any more. To the fear-mongers, I also ask this hypothetical: would you still pick the ICE if you were trapped upside down in it, waiting for fire suppression crews to cut you out all the while fuel is leaking onto the hot exhaust manifold?

The idea that most of society drives around with dozens of gallons of highly flammable liquid with an extremely low flashpoint that’s separated from the environment by a millimeters-thick container, while focusing on the once-every-never EV battery fire, is completely baffling to me..

fotomoto

Excellent points John but doesn’t one want to know if particular EV’s or battery design or chemistry is more susceptible to fire than others?

Killerdill

Don’t worry…one day the evs will be on fire regularly to. Maybe..if they can make enough batteries seeing as lithium is not hugely abundant and the few places that have a lot of it are located in fragile and important eco systems. No biggie though we will just trash the planet in the name of being green. Just like making solar panels.

Will

Did you not watch the latest video on lithium ‘farming’? The environmental impact… well let’s just say that the oil industry does much worse things 🙂 There’s enough lithium for the time being, at least until we eliminate it from batteries in the (hopefully not too distant) future.

Oh, and some of the batteries of the future are expected to be solid state and NOT catch fire.

Dave

Once a year? 3 Tesla’s have burned up in the last 4 months in the USA? And that is jut the reported ones…

God/Bacardi

As an extremely social outspoken EV advocate, I have never heard anyone talking about a fire…Common objections are, too high pricing, non-Tesla EV geek stigma and don’t want to spend an hour at a charging station…

John

My 1996 Ford Powerstroke Turbo Diesel had a recall on it for a faulty speed control. Until it was replaced, it was at risk for catching fire WITH OR WITHOUT THE ENGINE RUNNING!! So they advised me to park my vehicle outdoors away from buildings until I could have the recall work done. NEVER had that risk while owning an EV.

Oh, and by the way, here’s a short list of fire hazards from Ford alone, never mind the other manufacturers:

https://www.cars.com/recalls/ford-f_250-1996/

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ford-recall/ford-recalls-super-duty-trucks-after-tailpipe-fires-idUSN2131846020070322

http://www.motortrend.com/news/ford-recalls-230k-vehicles-for-fire-risk/

Mike

That’s apples to oranges though. An EV could just as easily have a poorly designed or manufactured component that leads to overheating an creates a fire risk.

John

Um, ok. So strike the above information then because… in theory something bad can happen to an EV? Point is, the bad stuff DOES happen to ICE.

zzzzzzzzzz
Car fires have went down since Pinto times. Pinto is just a punching bag, it wasn’t really much different from other cars of that size in that era. https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Fire-statistics-and-reports/Fire-statistics/Vehicle-fires/Highway-vehicle-fires These 174,000 fires and 445 deaths in 2015 in the US are for average 11 year clunker on road, for 263 million vehicles in the US. Or 1.7 deaths per million car/years. Battery electric cars except Tesla stand good so far with no traction battery fires, except one Volt left upside down in junk yard, and have good preliminary overall driver death statistics for Volt and Leaf already published by IIHS. Now less than 200,000 Teslas in the US should have less than 1.7*0.200 = 0.34 fire deaths per car/year to match average gas clunker. Just recently 2 teens burned alive in South Florida as reported by media (other than insideevs), and it is not the first and not the last case. Zealots may scream and hate all the way, but these cars are death traps on wheels, especially compared to other BEVs. And these are big and new $100k cars, not some cheap old Pintos. And they even remain self-igniting fire hazard for days after transporting them from crash site,… Read more »
Dave

but there are still Pintos on the road, I saw one recently… So those still factor into Elon’s fire and safety claims…

eject

Diesel is nearly inflammable.

Dave

Exactly, I had the fuel filter replaced in my pickup, and the dealer did something wrong and it did not seal up. I drove 100 miles over the mountains with fuel leaking right next to the hot turbocharger, and running down the exhaust pipe dripping underneath, and no problems at all. I did not even know anything was wrong except my fuel economy was down, and there was vaporized fuel steam coming out of the hood when I stopped at our cabin. Kinda scared me…

Killerdill

How many lithium batteries catch fire while charging or being used everyday? I bet it’s equal to or greater than vehicle fire totals. Samsung phone recall…countless hoverboards and other two wheeled scooters…vape/e-cigs…I know a guy that lost half a finger when his vapes lithium battery decided to explode while he was using it…I’ve personally owned a laptop and 2 cell phones that reached dangerous temperatures while charging and had to be replaced. I saw a guy drop his phone at work while 20 feet up on a ladder and the battery exploded and caught fire upon impact with the hard concrete of the driveway. Yet of all the people I know not a single one has had their vehicle start on fire…and some of those vehicles were very old and not well maintained.

Will
The batteries in our phones are not the same chemistry as the batteries in cars. Yes, lithium, but different chemistries of lithium battery. They’re designed to have a shorter but much more intense life. Sure, EV’s can pull a heck of a current, but bear in mind EV’s have so many cells, that individual load is manageable. Batteries in consumer electronics catching fire isn’t as big a deal as you make it. In Samsung’s case, it was a faultily-manufactured batch. In the case of the hoverboards, they were dangerous to begin with, and did not meet European safety standards. They were quite literally assembled dangerously. Think how many phones are dropped every day. The number of those that catch fire are extremely slim. In any case, I have owned various laptops and mobile phones and had they’ve been just fine. Your experiences are just different to mine and most people’s. A key factor you’re not considering here is that the number of fatal EV fires is a lot lower. This is because of clever compartmentalisation that slows the spread of the fire. It eventually burns hot, but it doesn’t flare up straight away. Comparatively, an ICE fire can combust almost… Read more »
Dave

Exactly… How many house burned down because of hover boards? 2 just in our small town. I have seen some vehicle fires, Its usually the brakes, transmission, or electrical that catch on fire, gas fires are rare, and diesels are exponentially lower risk.

I think Electrical fires in cars ICE or otherwise are the highest percentage, and gas tank is easily the lowest.

ace diamond

Every year, about 300 people die in the USA from fire-related automotive incidents…with the average age of cars being well over 10 years old.

If everyone drove a $100,000 TESLA that have an average age of 2 years old, then about 15,000 people would die every yearin the USA from fire-related automotive incidents.

Bill Howland

I don’t have any information about the “3” to date, but the first Roadster was quite fireproof, or essentially so, in that the Human Passengers protected and cushioned the battery. In other words, to start a fire in the first roadster, both driver and passenger would have to be dead first.

But the “S” frankly scares me, what with flying projectiles and Multiple Explosions that you hear in the major crashes.

But this article unfairly paints too Broad a Brush…… Many vehicle brands, such as GM who have also sold thousands of electrified products – have to my knowledge no ‘in-service’ fatalities due to battery fires.

William

The day when knowledgeable agent provocateurs, looking to sling Molotov Cocktails, with some extra fire power, at their next anarchy demonstration, toss in additional overcharged 18650 lithium ion batteries into their concoction of fuel filled bottles topped with a short rag, then maybe the EV fire thingy, might gain some actual traction, but until then………..friggin’ bleeding crickets.

John

Steve Loveday- thanks for scrubbing the expletive-laced vitriol from this thread. I have no doubts it’s exasperating to have haters making your job difficult- and on the weekend no less! Thanks for your hard work, have a great rest of your weekend.

SJC

The electrolyte solvent is ethylene which is a flammable hydrocarbon.

Douglas Moulton

This is directed to John the firefighter. I believe your comments, but what is the difference of severity of the ICE fire compared to BEV fires? I would think the inflammable liquid fuels would cause the vehicle to be engulfed much quicker than the battery chemicals. I would rather have time on my side in the event of fire of any sort. Your comments would be appreciated and make others wary of ICE’s.