How often do electric cars actually burn?

But the fact is that an electric car fire is significantly less likely than a combustion engine fire. This is now also confirmed by data from various studies and authorities worldwide. In numbers, an electric car is 60 times less likely to catch fire than a combustion engine powered car.

Even insurance companies are now saying that electric cars pose no particular fire risk.

Petrol and diesel engines rely on controlled combustion taking place in their engines. Accordingly, for technical reasons, they are closer to fire than electric cars. Which also have their batteries in reinforced housings under the car. Where they are least likely to suffer damage in the event of an accident.

In addition, electric cars switch off their HV batteries within a fraction of a second in the event of an accident. So that the high voltage is isolated in the battery housing and can no longer cause any damage.

Nevertheless, one can get the impression that electric cars burn more often. After all, we hear and see this regularly in the media. Unfortunately, this is more about a high focus on each individual electric car fire. For example, in the image used here, AXA Insurance had simulated one and later admitted that there was no battery left in the vehicle. The fire was artificially created.

The reason for this was the safety of those involved in this demonstration and they later publicly apologized for it.

It is perhaps also comparable to airplane accidents. Each one is spectacular and is shown everywhere. But still, the journey to the airport is statistically more dangerous than the flight.

What is actually an issue is extinguishing of electric cars. If the battery has actually caught fire, it will be much more difficult to extinguish it. This is caused by chemical reactions that make it impossible to suffer the fire. Accordingly, you need significantly more water and cool the battery until it is done.

However, it is often enough to let the car burn down in a controlled manner and protect the surrounding area from also catching fire. The road under the car is damaged one way or another, which would also be the case if a combustion engine powered car burned to the ground.

However, it is also important to mention that not every electric car fire affects the battery. On the contrary. You often see photos after the fires and the battery itself isn't affected at all. Instead, the gas for the AC caught fire or something else in the area around the vehicle.

In fact, even an electric car that is already on fire usually cannot set the battery on fire.

It's worth taking a closer look at photos of electric cars that have burned down:

Did the battery actually burn in the underbody? Then you usually can't even recognize the vehicle model anymore because the batteries burn very hot and everything melts. Or, for example, only the front of the vehicle burned down and the rear is still too easy to see? Was it actually an electric car or was it the combustion engine version of this model? When watching videos of fires, it is always advisable to look at the color of the fire and how the fire develops. Large explosions, for example, indicate gas powered cars instead.

This post was originally written for my personal Twitter and Linkedin accounts. I then published it here so it won't get lost in the depths of social media. I would also like to be able to see how my statements have aged in 10 years time.

Replies 3

  • While I agree the chances of an electric vehicle igniting are much lower than a liquid fuel vehicle, the destructive consequences of such a fire are much greater because of the difficulty in extinguishing the fire. I believe governments and fire services need a more rational and coherent approach to dealing with such fires instead the current ad hoc approach. That sort research can not be entrusted to car or battery makers, so it needs to be done either by governments or by independent institutions.

    I have no doubt that EVs are here to stay in one form or another, and that some of them will catch light, so we must find better ways to deal with the inevitable fires. Ideally of course a non flammable battery would obviate the problem, but that is as far off as nuclear fusion at the moment. In the meantime we must deal with what we have now.

  • As already mentioned, you can't actually extinguish a burning EV battery, as it has everything it needs to burn by itself. That's why they moved from trying to extinguish them to simply cooling the battery until it's done. This way it's as destructive to the surroundings than ICE cars.

  • Cooling is one method of dealing with a fire, but is difficult to achieve when the battery is hidden within the vehicle. Cooling with water jets also spreads the emitted materials into the surrounding environment.

    Total containment and/or immersion of the vehicle is another method that is equally difficult, particularly when it comes to larger commercial vehicles such as buses and lorries.

    I have seen on Youtube some experimental work, in Denmark if memory serves, in which a car battery was modified with a port to allow chilled salt water to be injected into it. The salt discharged the battery very quickly while the chilled water absorbed much of the heat at source. That is the sort of research into new approaches I was referring to.

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