According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), over 10 million highway vehicle fires caused about 19,000 deaths and over 70,000 injuries in the United States from 1980–2015. According to the NFPA, a highway vehicle is, “any vehicle designed to operate normally on highways, such as automobiles, motorcycles, buses, trucks, and trailers.” The good news about the data is that highway vehicle fires have been decreasing since 1980, which was the peak year at 456,000 fires.
With such low numbers on the road, hardly any of these fires involve electric vehicles. For example, the high-volume Nissan LEAF was only introduced in 2010, while the Tesla Model S was released in 2012. Fast-forwarding a few years, the number of all Teslas on American roads in 2014 was so small compared to the number of internal combustion vehicles that it was closer to zero than anything substantive in terms of the national fleet.
Forbes reported in 2014 that Tesla might have sold about 8,000 Model S sedans in one quarter, but a portion of those went to Europe. Compare that to the nearly 270 million vehicles in the U.S. and the number of electric vehicles pales in comparison to the number of internal combustion vehicles.
So, why are some mainstream news outlets seemingly obsessed about reporting the extremely rare Tesla fires, while not giving equal coverage to the far greater number of gasmobile fires?
Some news is driven by commerce — the publishers are trying to attract as many eyeballs as possible to make money. They aren’t attempting to be fair, factual, or balanced because they are employing the sensationalistic “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to selling news media.
Many gasmobiles have mechanical issues and burn up every day, but where are all the news stories about them? Gasoline is flammable and can explode, but it seems that gasmobile drivers and journalists have the misconception that Teslas are more dangerous.
MNN wrote an article about some of the most explosive gasmobiles and placed the old Ford Pinto in the top position. “Writer Mark Dowie focused on the explosive Ford Pinto in his extensive investigative journalism piece that appeared in a 1977 issue of Mother Jones magazine. In the article, a conservative estimate of 500 burn deaths could be attributed to the Pinto’s faulty design, with less conservative estimates reaching as high as 900.”
There is a tendency for news outlets to focus on new technologies, especially when those technologies hit bumps in the road. Some of this attention is warranted, as fire departments do need to be aware of new technologies, and how to best fight fires in electric vehicles is part of that, infrequent as they are. Do different battery chemistries need to be treated differently? Do firefighters need different tools? Is different protective equipment required?
On the other hand, the possibility that the news media intentionally sensationalizes electric vehicles to draw traffic, to stoke up fear of new things in the hearts of the masses, or in support of their internal combustion vehicle sponsors is very real. Massive global companies stand to lose trillions of dollars when electric vehicles succeed, with oil companies at the top of that list.
The video below shows a few internal combustion vehicle and fueling station fires. Many of these car fire and car explosion incidents in the video took place outside the US, but petroleum products are just as flammable anywhere in the world.