Electric vehicle fires are rare, but challenging

Published in News on 5/24/2021

Fundamentally, electric vehicles are extremely safe, but the main danger occurs when the lithium-ion battery is damaged. During an electric vehicle fire, over 100 organic chemicals are generated, toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide – both of which are fatal to humans.

Tagged Under: Emergency Response, Lessons Learned, Offsite Response, Worker Health

Around 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 17 near a Houston subdivision, a 2019 Tesla Model S jumped the road and collided with a tree. News reports focused on the fact that no one seemed to be behind the wheel of the car when it crashed. The bodies of two men were inside, one in the passenger seat and another in the rear seat of the vehicle, suggesting they had been using the car's self-driving autopilot. But several reports noted another interesting fact: When first responders arrived and attempted to put the fire out, it kept reigniting, burning continuously for over four hours despite the use of nearly 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish it. 


It's long been known that the high-voltage, lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles can be dangerous. The fact is, nearly all lithium-ion batteries have the potential to explode or burn. Five years ago, Samsung had to recall about a million of its new Galaxy Note 7 phones because some were overheating or catching fire. In 2016, Amazon was found to be selling faulty batteries that would on occasion catch fire as well. The problem with electric vehicle (EV) batteries, however, is that they contain a lot more stored energy than a battery in a cell phone. 


“The battery in a Tesla is composed of a large number of individual cells," says K.M. Abraham, a recently retired research professor at Northeastern University's Center for Renewable Energy Technologies. “Under normal conditions they are safe. But if you short circuit a cell, the energy is released in a very short time. It was a pretty serious crash and thousands of cells were probably burned at the same time and that puts out a lot of heat." 


Electric vehicle batteries first gained national attention when a Chevrolet Volt caught fire three weeks after a routine crash test in May 2011. Scores of other cases have been reported since, with more than 40 fires reported in various Tesla models, particularly some of the earliest versions of the car. 


In one case in Los Angeles in 2018, a Tesla Model S burst into flames while sitting in traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard, with fire erupting out of the wheel well. In a statement, Tesla called it an “extraordinarily unusual occurrence."

Citing data from the US Federal Highway Administration, Tesla claims that gasoline-powered cars are about 11 times more likely to catch fire than one of its own cars. The company uses a metric of “fires per 1 billion miles driven" and says that for the period between 2012 to 2020, there has been about one vehicle fire for every 205 million miles traveled.


Experts agree that electric cars catch fire less often than gasoline-powered cars, but the duration and intensity of the fires due to the implementation of lithium-ion battery systems can make the fires in electric cars much harder to put out. “A lot of energy is stored inside an electric car battery, and it's meant to be taken out in a very controlled way," says Abraham. “When that doesn't happen you can end up with a very combustible reaction. It's like what happens in hell, if you can imagine what happens in hell." 


Read the rest of the article here: Electronic Vehicle Fires


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Electric vehicle fires are rare, but challenging to extinguish