Midjourney generated image of burning Range Rover in front of Buckingham Palace

Land Rovers Keep Catching Fire, But EVs Get Blamed For Luton Carpark Fire

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A couple of days ago, the carpark in Luton in the UK caught fire and partially collapsed. Luckily no one was killed, but five were hospitalized and a sixth treated at the scene. Up to 1,200 cars have been damaged or destroyed.

Part of my thoughts are, of course, with the innumerable people who are heavily impacted by this, from the injured, the car owners, the emergency responders and the airport staff who are going to be cleaning up this mess for years. But another big part of my thoughts are with the inanity of discourse around car fires right now.

Let’s put some basic facts on the table. The fire department identified the car which started the blaze. There’s video of it. It was a diesel Range Rover, one of the Land Rover group of cars. While there is a diesel battery-electric hybrid option for some of the Range Rover groups, there’s zero evidence that it was a hybrid.

In fact, a front view video of the car shows its license plate, and UK’s Ministry of Transport makes it clear that the car was a 2014 diesel Range Rover Sport, license plate E10EFL. Used car site Car Check confirms this, showing it has tested emissions of 194 g/km, which puts it at the top end of the emissions range for non-hybrid diesel light vehicles. Not only is there no evidence that it was hybrid, there is strong evidence it wasn’t hybrid.

Is there any evidence about Land Rovers and fires? Why yes there is. The firm recalled 112,000 of them a few months ago because they had a bad problem with catching fire. A bit under the hood tended to come loose and spray fuel over the hot metal engine bits, causing ignition. Yes, diesel can be lit outside of a pressure cylinder by a hot enough ignition point. You can’t light diesel with a match, but that doesn’t mean it won’t catch fire, just that it’s harder to make it do that.

This is part and parcel of the glories of the British automotive industry, which has never been known for German workmanship or boring Swedish reliability. Jaguar cars infamously had their electrical system fail completely quite regularly, leading to Lucas Electrical, the firm that worked on it, being referred to as the Prince of Darkness more often than not. In a fitting end point for these brands, both now operate as Jaguar Land Rover and are owned by Indian mega-corporation Tata.

A Land Rover destroyed a British car park in Liverpool because of this problem six years ago. Thousand degree temperatures, 1,400 cars destroyed, vaporized floors in the parking structure. Gee, massive property damage, including a structure which had to be demolished. Sound somewhat familiar?

As far as I can tell, Land Rovers and Range Rovers occupy the same place that massive pickup trucks do in North American car culture. They are vastly outsized, overpowered, heavy machines which pretend to be working vehicles, but are remarkably often driven in cities to pick up lattes, and are detailed to within an inch of their life. In other words, a lot of the time these vehicles are just big tokens of the person’s aspirational identity as some rural heroic figure.

The differences, of course, are that in the UK, the aspiration is to be a lord or baron with an estate, and the Land Rover something you use for fox hunting and to help your peasants with their gravid sheep. Pickups in the USA are for different landed gentry, cattle ranchers with massive spreads that take half a day to drive across in the plains of Texas.

It’s kind of remarkable that given the pretentious gittery that comes with driving detailed Land Rovers that love to catch fire and Brits love of a bit of good class warfare that no one has been making hay with this problem.

Oh, wait. Enter The Daily Mail. It’s an absurdly popular working class newspaper full of sensationalist nonsense and irresponsible reporting. Its readers skew old, averaging 58, and vote Conservative quite heavily. It’s been a tabloid since 1971, and proudly leans into the trashy aspects of tabloids. Remarkably, it didn’t seem to ever have the sexist Page 3 girl so many other British papers did, but it gladly reported on them and included salacious pictures of the models quite regularly. That’s probably why it actually manages a readership, that while older and conservative, is just over 50% female.

The paper has been reporting on Land Rover fires for years, presumably because its aging Conservative readers love a lord or City man or posh bint getting their comeuppance. Let’s see:

By the way, if I appear to be laying on the charms of the working class Brit a bit thick, my Dad was one, so I have somewhat of an insider’s appreciation of the group. And yes, I watched and read absurd amounts of British cultural artifacts like Beano, Enid Blyton’s millions of books, and Monty Python growing up.

In any other year, this massive and thankfully not lethal fire in the UK would have been a sure thing for wall-to-wall Land Rover fire coverage. But not in 2023.

The vast majority of the press coverage is either speculating that it was an electric car, stating that it must have been an electric car, or — like this piece — commenting on the absurd culture wars leading to a situation where any car that catches fire anywhere is assumed to be electric by great swathes of the poorly washed. This despite, of course, the reality that fully electric cars are much less likely to catch fire than internal combustion cars. With greater complexity comes greater opportunity for Murphy to raise his shaggy head, so hybrids unsurprisingly are the worst.

This was part and parcel of the feverish reporting when a car-carrying ship caught fire in the North Sea this summer. Everybody, but everybody, was blaming electric cars for it. Headlines globally. Right-wing politicos inveighing against this dangerous menace. Right-wing social media full of claims that EVs were too dangerous.

Of course, the fire wasn’t caused by an electric car. The fire started and spread on decks without any electric cars, which was discovered after the ship was towed to the dock and salvage work started. And as various assessments of internal combustion cars point out, when they catch fire, burning gasoline or diesel flows freely around the place lighting other things on fire, while electric cars don’t spread burning liquid fuel far and wide as they burn.

Were there innumerable headlines about the actual cause of the fire? Was right-wing social and ‘mainstream’ media chagrined and repentant? No, of course not. In the minds of those fighting this culture war on behalf of burning long dead plants in noisy, smelly and pitifully sluggish vehicles, that ship fire was caused by an electric car. For the actual media, such as it is, they’ve moved on.

This is aligned with the reporting on hydrogen for energy plays. The organizations which do the math and avoid it like the deeply fiscally unwise nonsense it is almost never put out press releases to that effect or get headlines. The organizations which don’t do the math or which get sufficient government money to ignore it, like IKEA in Austria with its almost million euros per delivery van recently, do put out press releases. The organizations which walk away from their hydrogen folly after a year or five because it’s an economic disaster and the government refuses to pay for it anymore rarely put out press releases either. All of this leaves hydrogen for energy fans, at least the ones who refuse to look at any statistics on actual vehicles, with the mistaken impression that hydrogen for energy is a thing.

At least The Daily Mail, owned by the Viscount Rothermere naturally, stayed true to form:

That’s a tabloid which sticks to its culture wars. None of this new-fangled anti-EV culture war for The Daily Mail, not when there’s a Land Rover blowing up.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 686 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard