Photo by Carolyn Fortuna/CleanTechnica

Actually, EVs Don’t Catch On Fire As Frequently As Gas-Powered Cars Do

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The media is full of stories about EVs that catch on fire. Actually, research doesn’t support that claim. In fact, data demonstrates that EVs are much less likely to burst into flames than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

It’s just that, at this moment in time, it’s not very sexy to write articles that say, “Another gas-powered SUV explodes on highway” or “Your sedan is a fire hazard, waiting to happen” or “Beware the insidious scourge of everyday cars that catch on fire.”

Often, rushes to judgment about EV battery fires arise from isolated cases. The primary fear expressed is that EV batteries will explode during an accident, impact, or extreme weather conditions and erupt into fire, which might require several different approaches to extinguish.

Most EVs count on lithium-ion batteries to power them. A lithium battery stack includes two electrodes, a separator, and a cathode. These components are all soaked in a liquid electrolyte. During charging/discharging, the lithium moves back and forth between the electrodes.

The IIHS says it never had an EV catch fire or had an EV thermal runaway as a consequence of crash testing. Yet media stories all too often depict technology involving EV batteries as unsafe. If a battery is punctured or damaged, the generated heat can damage adjacent cells and cause a chain reaction, which is known as “thermal runaway.” NREL researcher Anudeep Mallarapu explains the process that batteries undergo for safety assurance, so that thermal runaways are much more rare than the media describes:

“Developing models for battery-powered vehicles is complicated: Besides mechanical and thermal response, we also consider complex chemical reactions, high voltage implications, as well as varied length scales and response times for the different physical phenomena.”

A report from AutoinsuranceEX outlines how EVs exhibited 61 times fewer fires per 100,000 sales than ICE vehicles. The authors explain that every year, car fires cause over a billion dollars of property damage losses and kill hundreds of people. Hybrid vehicles have the most vehicle fires, followed by gas, and then electric vehicles.

As our intrepid editor, Zachary Shahan, wrote, “Conventional gasoline-fueled cars are filled with and powered by an extremely combustible liquid. (It’s not called an ‘internal combustion engine’ for nothing — the problem is when that internal combustion becomes external combustion.)” The Federal Transportation Safety Board and the Bureau of Traffic Statistics say that gas cars cause 3837.17 times more fires than EVs.

“The overall arching takeaway (from the data) is that the rate of fires happening is less for EVs than petrol or diesel cars, and quite substantially,” James Edmondson, research director at IDTechEx, told Forbes.

EVs at Risk? Or Not? What’s Being Done to Solve the Few Problems?

What should everyone know about battery packs? They are:

  • encased in sealed shells;
  • tested for conditions such as overcharge, vibration, extreme temperatures, short circuit, humidity, fire, collision, and water immersion;
  • designed to shut down the electrical system when a collision or short circuit occurs;
  • placed widely within the frame along the bottom of the vehicle;
  • have a lower center of gravity than conventional vehicles;
  • are more stable than ICE vehicles and less likely to roll over;
  • unlikely to be damaged except in extreme crash conditions; and,
  • can only be damaged if the EV’s steel frame itself is damaged.

Last year, suspicion swirled in media circles that transporting EVs was much riskier than transporting ICE vehicles, mainly because battery fires are much harder to control than gasoline fires. Since then, it’s been revealed that more cars were onboard, and a larger contingent of them were BEVs. The Fremantle Highway had 3,285 ICE vehicles onboard and 498 battery electric vehicles. That makes the chance that it was a BEV that caused the fire about 1.3%.

As more and more lithium-ion batteries are manufactured to electrify the transportation sector, global demand for nickel and cobalt has soared. In a couple of decades, shortages in nickel and cobalt could put the brakes on battery production as it is currently done. If it is pushed further, oxygen released during charging could cause batteries to ignite. In some cases, the energy density of cobalt and nickel is already being extended to a maximum level, so research into alternatives is welcome news.

For example, Anthro Energy, Inc. has developed a polymer electrolyte that it says can make batteries safer and more energy dense, both key attributes as the batteries become a bigger part of the energy transition. The company’s AdhesION technology is a new class of polymer electrolyte that the company indicates “provides an unprecedented combination of performance, safety, and mechanical integrity.” Anthro’s alternative solid electrolyte material isn’t flammable and also imparts mechanical strength to the cell.

EV Drivers Feel Their Vehicles Are Safe

A survey conducted by CleanTechnica in August 2023 had a respondent pool of 1097 EV owners and leasers. The survey demonstrated that today’s western EV drivers are a confident, self-reliant, and resilient bunch. Nearly all respondents said that it costs far less to run their EV in comparison to what it had cost to run their former gas-powered car (4.7/5 average rating). The respondents weren’t concerned about battery fires (1.6/5 average rating). In fact, they felt EVs are safer than gas-powered vehicles (4.3/5 average rating).

Then again, their non-EV driving friends and colleagues weren’t quite so convinced about EV safety (2.4/5 average rating).

For anyone concerned about EV safety, it’s important to know that commercially available electric drive vehicles must meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and undergo the same rigorous safety testing as conventional vehicles sold in the US. In the EU, EVs must be inspected every two years to ensure they are roadworthy. They must have specific safety features, such as a high-voltage interlock and a fail-safe mode.

Battery electric vehicles, PHEVs, and HEVs have high-voltage electrical systems that typically range from 100 to 600 volts. Their battery packs are encased in sealed shells and meet testing standards that subject batteries to conditions such as overcharge, vibration, extreme temperatures, short circuit, humidity, fire, collision, and water immersion. Manufacturers design these vehicles with insulated high-voltage lines and safety features that deactivate the electrical system when they detect a collision or short circuit.

Final Thoughts about EVs that Don’t Catch on Fire

Want to learn more facts about EV and how they don’t actually catch on fire as often as the media suggests? Check out our CleanTechnica report, “The EV Safety Advantage.”

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

Carolyn Fortuna has 1338 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna