Are EVs Prone to Fire?
Despite occasional high-profile incidents, data suggests that electric vehicles (EVs) are not more prone to catching fire than their gasoline counterparts. In fact, in China, which is the world’s largest EV market, the incidence of new energy vehicles catching fire was found to be significantly lower.
In 2019, the rate stood at a mere 0.0049%, which further dipped to 0.0026% since 2020. Meanwhile, traditional gasoline cars have an annual fire accident rate of about 0.01% to 0.02%, as per the Chinese Public Security Department. While EVs can catch fire due to issues like thermal runaway in power batteries, improper charging practices, or external forces causing battery deformation, preventive measures can significantly mitigate these risks.
The ticking time bomb of our age might just be parked in our driveways. The afternoon of August 22, 2021, in Guangzhou’s Zhujiang New Town, bore witness to an eerie spectacle – a Tesla Model S self-ignited, the licks of its violent flames sparing not the adjacent BMW 7 Series. Firefighters rushed to the scene, but the damage had been done, the incident once again casting a chilling shadow on the seemingly inevitable rise of the electric vehicle (EV).
As the rate of EV adoption accelerates globally, stories of spontaneous combustion punctuate the narrative, sending jitters through the ranks of potential adopters and existing EV owners alike. A series of conflagrations, some attributable to driver error, others occurring randomly in transit, and still others while the vehicles sit innocuously in parking lots, make for grim reading.
A pertinent question arises – are EVs more prone to combustion than their fossil-fuel-guzzling counterparts? Curiously, data in China, the world’s largest EV market, points to the contrary. The frequency of new energy vehicles catching fire in 2019 was a mere 0.0049%, which has even dipped to 0.0026% since 2020. Traditional gasoline cars, on the other hand, have an annual fire accident rate of about 0.01% to 0.02%, according to the Chinese Public Security Department.
Why then do these EVs catch fire? The answer, invariably, comes down to the power battery, responsible for about 31% of EV fire cases. Poor conductivity in lithium batteries during fast charging can generate significant heat, precipitating thermal runaway. Improper handling by the owner during charging can also induce combustion. Finally, external forces resulting in battery deformation can cause internal components to short circuit.
Such knowledge inevitably begs the question – how does one prevent an EV from igniting? Regular maintenance checks of the battery, safe charging practices, resisting the urge to tinker with the vehicle’s circuitry, proper driving habits, and adequate rest for the battery during long drives can significantly mitigate the risk of combustion.
However, if despite these precautions, one finds oneself in the middle of an EV fire, immediate and decisive action can prevent further harm. A sudden smell of burning or a sharp odor could signal plastic components catching fire due to excessive heat. Immediate cessation of the vehicle, followed by an exit and calling for help is recommended. Similar action is warranted if smoke is detected while driving. In the event of a severe collision, the keys should be discarded immediately – the electric system of an EV shuts off once the keys are removed, reducing the likelihood of electrically induced mishaps. Should the vehicle doors become deformed and unopenable, a window breaker should be used to evacuate immediately. Finally, given that a burning EV battery can reach a scorching 1000°C and releases toxic gases, a safe distance should be maintained from the burning vehicle.
As we race toward an all-electric future, vigilance, awareness, and preparedness can ensure our journey is not marred by unwelcome firestorms. And yet, despite the sporadic fires, it’s essential to remember that EVs are here to extinguish a much larger inferno – the existential crisis of climate change.