It’s fair to say that electric cars have had a fairly hard time when trying to impress the general public since they first hit the market in the mid-2000s. Sure, they have their supporters, but if you look in the comments section of any automotive news outlet when they talk about electric vehicles, you’ll find a plethora of people telling why they’re the worst thing in the world. One of the most common – alongside range anxiety – is the theory that an EV (electric vehicle) is more likely to burst into flames than its fossil-fuel burning ancestors. But how true is this?
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Do electric cars catch fire?
There’s no beating around the bush here – yes, electric cars can catch fire, but then so can your more traditional internal combustion engines (ICEs). In fact, if you look at the facts and figures from research carried out in recent years – of which there’s been plenty as more and more people ask this very question – you’ll see that you’re far less likely to see a fire in an electric car. In 2019, the London Fire Brigade was called to just 54 fires in EVs, compared to 1898 for petrol and diesel cars. Arguably there are far fewer EVs on the road compared to ICE vehicles, but the figures go very much against the notion that there’s a high chance your EV will spontaneously combust as you’re driving along.
How can electric cars catch fire?
So, we’ve established that an electric car can catch fire, but let’s have a look into why they might do so. You’ve probably heard of lithium-ion batteries, and these are the heart and soul of EVs. These are the same type of battery packs you’ll find sitting in your pocket for most of the day, as they’re often found in smartphones and laptops. Anyone who’s used either of these devices for an extended period of time will know that they can get quite toasty when worked hard, and the same goes for the batteries found in EVs.
However, sophisticated cooling systems are used in batteries used to power EVs, keeping them at their optimum working temperature and ensuring that overheating isn’t a problem. This problem will occur, however, if the battery pack is subjected to excessive heat, a system failure or is penetrated following an accident. In this instance, the system will short circuit, which means the excessive heat cannot be removed as quickly as it’s generated, causing a chemical reaction which in turn creates more heat, which boosts the chemical reaction, which creates more… you get the idea. This is called a ‘thermal runaway’, and as the temperatures rise, the risk of ignition or explosion rises with it.
How do you put out a fire in an electric car?
Carefully and with immense difficulty. Now, that might be an answer you can copy and paste to any type of car, but a fire in an EV is a totally different kettle of fish to one you’ll find in a car burning petrol or diesel. In the words of Paul Christensen, senior advisor to the National Fire Chiefs Council: “a battery fire can be controlled but it cannot be extinguished.” This is because there is a high probability that once the fire is out, it will just reignite again minutes, hours, days or even weeks later.
In many cases, manufacturers of electric cars actually say that the safest way to deal with a fire is to let it burn out in a controlled manner, rather than trying to extinguish it before it’s done its own thing. Fire services will now regularly send a team to follow the recovery team back to their destination in case the car reignites en route.
Once the car has been safely removed, it must be safely stored away from any other buildings and vehicles, and in some extreme cases cars are actually submerged in water until they are deemed to be safe. It has been said that around a quarter of all scrapyard fires are because of lithium-ion batteries, hence the need for caution long after the fire itself.
Are electric cars more likely to catch fire than petrol or diesel cars?
As we’ve alluded to previously, there’s currently no data that suggests that EVs are more susceptible to fires than the ICE dinosaurs, however it’s worth noting that with EVs still in their relative infancy, there isn’t a lot of data to work with at present.
One thing that is worth considering however, is there are much fewer chances for an EV to catch fire when it comes to general physics. The most common reason a petrol or diesel car will catch fire is due to friction within the moving parts generating heat, and there are far fewer moving parts on an EV when compared to the gubbins of an internal combustion engine. On top of that, petrol and diesel are both highly flammable, and often have to travel past the incredibly hot exhaust system – there’s a reason you need to keep on top of your radiator and coolant or you’re quite literally driving a firebomb on wheels. It goes without saying that an EV doesn’t require any of these elements, therefore reducing the risk of fire.
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