I found myself asking are electric cars more likely to catch fire the other day. It may sound completely unintuitive, especially for somebody who writes for ev.tips but I was at the pub the other day with my neighbour. After a couple of pints, we got onto the subject of EVs, despite not driving himself, he has quite vociferous opinions on them.
This struck me as a little odd, after all being somebody who doesn’t drive, it’s not like he fetishises the growl of an engine or thinks that he will lose money on his combustion engine car as the EV revolution rolls on. Instead, it was, strangely enough, his background in the merchant navy that turned out to be the source of his trepidation.
Being in the merchant navy means being hyper-aware of fires because I doubt many people could think of a worse situation than a couple of thousand people aboard a burning cruise ship in the middle of a freezing cold ocean. As an officer, he was especially aware of the issues of lithium-ion batteries and the difficulties that you can have if they combust.
The difficulty with lithium-ion fires is that they cannot be put out with traditional firefighting techniques or even common fire extinguishers. Spraying a burning battery with water isn;t going to do much and carbon dioxide won’t do much either.
“Are we all making a decision between burning ourselves or burning our planet?”
Not only that, but lithium-ion batteries will burn until the energy within them has gone and they retain heat significantly more than combustion cars. It leaves them prone to re-ignition after they have initially been put out and left unattended will burn hotter for longer. There was even a recorded case in Sacramento of a Tesla that self-combusted weeks after it had been involved in a crash.
With all this in my mind I was worried, is the publication I write for promoting something that will kill millions? Are we all making a decision between burning ourselves or burning our planet?
The differences between electric and combustion-powered cars
It is certainly true that when EVs burn, they do so in a different way to the kind of vehicle fires that we have become accustomed to and when they do burn it is for much longer. It presents a new challenge for firefighters who must adapt to changing technologies in terms of how they work.
Jim Palmer, Area Manager for Essex County Fire & Rescue Service said: “It takes special training and understanding of electric vehicles to ensure these fires are put out as quickly and safely as possible. We need to know where it’s safe to stabilise them, shut them off, disable the battery, how the batteries may react and where to cut in order to access them.”
The important thing here is that fire services are adopting new working practices to deal with a changing technological environment. We have seen this before many times – modern houses have entirely different materials to something built hundreds of years ago, the diesel car was invented 50 years after the petrol car, and petrol cars completely replaced horses.
In each one, there were changes in fire safety and firefighting requirements. With the explosion (excuse the pun) in EVs, it should come as no surprise that there are videos of firefighters struggling to deal with a type of fire that they aren’t used to. A Tesla Model Y has 771kg of batteries in it – how many fires will most firefighters have dealt with like that before?
It is certainly true that they burn differently, but there is mounting evidence that the cars that don’t have the word ‘combustion’ in their drive train are less likely to combust.
A study in Sweden by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) found that combustion vehicles were 20 times more likely to catch fire than electric cars.
During 2022 only 23 fires were recorded of the 611,000 EVs in the country representing 0.004% of all EVs catching fire. Meanwhile, across the same period, 3,400 combustion vehicles caught fire of the 4.4 million fleet, representing 0.08%.
The MSB study also found that electric cars were getting safer too. Since they began tracking this in 2019 they have found that the number of EV fires has stayed at around 20, whilst the number of EVs has skyrocketed, with EVs making up 51.3% of new car sales in 2022 compared to just 11% in 2019.
Much of this comes down to improved designs with car manufacturers focussing on fire safety and suppression features.
There is also collaboration between car manufacturers and fire departments. Audi, for instance, is working with the Essex fire service in every aspect of their production to improve understanding of EVs to help them better fight any fires that do occur.
But is it all just the electric cars?
An interesting quirk of the statistics also needs to be looked at, the key to this is the definition of an EV. According to the UK parliament EVs ‘use electric motors to drive their wheels.’ This means that electric scooters, e-bikes, and even e-bike conversions are defined as an EV in the figures, which skews the figures and gives ammunition to anti-EV campaigners.
According to stats from Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions, there were 239 ‘EV Fires’ in 2022, an 83% increase on 2021. However, this has not been broken down into granular detail, The MSB study in Sweden found that there were actually 106 fires related to ‘EVs’ in 2022, but that less than 25% of these were electric cars, with the rest being made up of e-scooters and e-bikes.
With the market for both e-scooters and e-bikes flooded with cheap and untested products, it is at best poorly collected data at worst manipulated. It is no surprise that a cheap e-scooter that somebody bought off eBay for £100 may not be as safe as a £40k electric car.
However, until we can get the same kind of accurate information that Sweden have these kind of myths are going to continue to spread. Until they do, just point people to this article.