Electric Cars Can Catch Fire. We Must Run And Tell The King!

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Something there is that doesn’t love new technology, that wants it relegated to a museum or confined to a laboratory secured by high walls and razor wire fences, Mary Shelley wrote a book about the phenomenon in which people take up pitchforks and torches in order to protest an invention by a local scientist by the name of Dr, Frankenstein. Her book is about the fear of new technology but all most people remember about it is the monster. Such is the case with another new technology — electric cars.

There are dozens of urban legends about electric cars. Many say they are just overgrown golf carts or that they can’t be driven in the rain. But the most prevalent myth about electric cars is that they are a fire hazard and likely to burst into flames at any time.

Let’s be honest. Electric car fires are scary. When batteries do catch fire, they burn three times hotter than a gasoline fire. So we won’t insult your intelligence by telling you there is nothing to be concerned about. But the data shows that gasoline and diesel powered cars are ten times more likely to catch fire than electric cars.

“All the data shows that EVs are just much, much less likely to set on fire than their petrol equivalent,” Colin Walker, the head of transport at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit in the UK told The Guardian.  “The many, many fires that you have for petrol or diesel cars just aren’t reported.”

Fires In Electric Cars Are Rare But Sensational

In Norway, which has the world’s highest proportion of electric car sales, there are between four and five times more fires in petrol and diesel cars, according to the directorate for social security and emergency preparedness. The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency this year found that there were 3.8 fires per 100,000 electric or hybrid cars in 2022, compared with 68 fires per 100,000 cars when taking all fuel types into account. However, the latter figures include arson, which makes direct comparisons difficult.

Australia’s Department of Defense funded EV FireSafe to look into the question. It found there was a 0.0012% chance of a passenger electric vehicle battery catching fire, compared with a 0.1% chance for internal combustion engine cars. Tesla is the world’s biggest maker of electric cars. It says the number of fires on US roads involving Teslas from 2012 to 2021 was 11 times lower per mile than the figure for all cars, the vast majority of which have gasoline or diesel engines.

Electric Cars Get A Bum Rap

Anytime a vehicle catches fire today, the first thing people thunk of is that it must be electric. In October, a car fire at the Luton airport destroyed 1200 cars and caused a portion of a parking garage to collapse. The news immediately flashed around the world that an electric car was to blame. In fact, the cause was found to be a diesel powered Range Rover.

My colleague Michael Barnard wrote at the time, “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.” But despite the positive identification of the car and the fact that the manufacturer has recently recalled 112,000 similar cars for risk of fire, the rumor persists that electric cars were responsible for the Luton airport fire.

Earlier this year, a ship called the Fremantle Highway was carrying 3,784 new cars across the Atlantic ocean on its way to Singapore when it caught fire. 498 of the vehicles aboard were electric cars. An employee of the ship’s owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, was the first to suggest the fire was caused by those EVs. Since it is well known that electric car batteries sometimes catch fire, it seemed safe to assume that is what happened aboard the Fremantle Highway. But one might just as well say a collision between two cars occurred because a man in a green fedora was nearby. People do not understand that coincidence and causality are not synonymous.

As videos of the smoke billowing from the stricken ship rocketed across the internet, many speculated that a fire that massive and intense must be related to the electric cars on board. The headlines screamed and the talking heads spoke with righteous indignation about the scourge of electric cars and how packing them into the hold of a ship was just begging for a horrific incident.

When would people learn not to ship electric cars by sea? Oh, the horror! The news media went crazy with lurid stories of how electric cars were responsible for the fire that killed one crew member and threatened the lives of 21 others who had to be rescued by helicopters.

After the fire was extinguished, the disabled ship was towed to Eemshaven, a port in northeastern Netherlands, where salvage operations begun. Peter Berdowski is in charge of the salvage operation, which is being undertaken by Royal Boskalis Westminster NV. After inspecting the damaged ship, he told the local press that between 900 and 1000 of the cars on board appear to be in good condition — including all 498 electric cars. He told Bloomberg the fire probably started in the 8th deck of the 12-deck ship, as that is where the worst damage is. The electric cars were all on decks far below.

Electric Cars And Electric Bikes

Part of the hysteria about fires in electric cars is attributable to the shocking incidence of fires in electric bikes, scooters, hoverboards, and other micro-mobiity devices. Paul Christensen, a professor of pure and applied electrochemistry at Newcastle University, studies batteries and helps to train fire brigades. He highlights the ominous risks of “vapor cloud explosions and rocket flames” when the gases burst out of cells.

However, Christensen told The Guardian the reputation of electric cars was being trnished by their lithium ion cousins. He has real concerns with electric scooters and bikes that use similar technology but often from unregulated, inexperienced manufacturers, or even DIY jobs using internet-sourced parts. He advises people never to leave e-bikes or scooters charging indoors or unattended.

The Takeaway

Just as Mary Shelley had a story to tell about the fear of new technology, so too did Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall. It tells the story of how every spring, he and his neighbor “beyond the hill” walk the stone wall between their properties, repairing the damage done to it by time, weather, and hunters .

Frost questions why they need a wall at all. His apple trees will never invade the pine trees next door. Then Frost delivers one of the greatest puns in English literature: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”

But his neighbor is wedded to the wisdom of his father: “Good fences make good neighbors.” What was good enough for our fathers should be good enough for us, shouldn’t it? However, Frost sees a more sinister aspect.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

We need to be aware that in today’s interactive world, it is only too easy for some to play on our fear of new technology. When you see lurid headlines about the dangers of electric cars, that is the time to take a step back to ask if what you are reading or hearing is true and who benefits if a falsehood is being spread.

Fires in electric cars are real, there is no doubt about that, but the truth is they are far less likely than gasoline or diesel fires. So if you want to drive a car with the lowest risk of fire, drive an electric car and be happy.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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