EVs Less Likely to Catch Fire, Safety Procedures Still Vital
Electric vehicles have taken a big hit over the last year or two to their safety reputation.
More specifically, a public perception has developed that EV batteries, which are bulkier and significantly more expensive than standard lead-acid batteries, are more prone to catching fire.
Some big news stories have given weight to this perception—namely, General Motors in August recalled all 140,000 of its Chevrolet Bolt EV and EUV models due to a rare defect that could cause a vehicle's battery to ignite.
The difficulty in fighting EV fires also adds to the reputation that they aren't as safe as ICE-powered vehicles.
"Electric vehicles with lithium ion batteries burn hotter, faster and require far more water to reach final extinguishment," EV Fire Safe Project Director Emma Sutcliffe said in a CNBC report. "And the batteries can re-ignite hours or even days after the fire is initially controlled, leaving salvage yards, repair shops and others at risk."
A perception of safety is critical in making a vehicle appealing to a broad range of buyers, and electric vehicles dealing with a reputation that they are more prone to fires could prove to be a major hurdle in reach widespread adoption. Except, there's one issue with that reputation: It's wrong.
At least, new studies have found data to support the argument that EVs are more fire-prone is false.
Data collected from a survey conducted by AutoinsuranceEZ found that in 2020, electric vehicles had fewer total fires and fewer fires per 100,000 units when compared to both ICE- and hybrid-powered vehicles.
Adding to that, nine models were recalled in 2020 due to fire risk, totalling just under 1.27 million units recalled. Only two models were fully electric—the Bolt and the Hyundai Kona—and only accounted for 152,000 units, or just under 12 percent, of the total that were recalled.
Despite the evidence, some are still hesitant about the reliability of EVs. Laura Adams, a senior analyst at AutoinsuranceEZ, says part of that reputation could stem from an inherent distrust of EVs since they have been, up until recently, a very niche and exclusive product.
"It gets a lot of attention because it is new, it's something that people could be wary of," Adams says. "And so with electric vehicles, there's the same kind of danger, that people are inflating the potential risks."
As more data becomes readily available and in greater quantities, Adams says that buyers will become more willing to branch out and trust EVs.
"Understanding that [the risk of fire] is truly is lower than in the type of vehicle that someone has probably driven all of their life is huge," she says. "Maybe we'll give people a little bit more confidence in purchasing one and knowing that it's actually quite safe to drive."
Even though EV fires, and vehicle fires in general, are a rare phenomenon, it's still essential to have your shop prepared for one in case of an emergency.
EV fires, as mentioned above, are significantly more complicated to extinguish, and that's due to the lithium-ion battery's design and components.
“Gasoline fires have a single reaction, while electric car batteries can have a prolonged source of energy to fuel the fire," Force by Mojio Operations Director Daivat Dholakia said in the report. "This makes extinguishing an electric car fire more difficult.”
EVs also don't have a central stored fuel source like ICE-powered vehicles do with their fuel tanks. That means it can still catch fire and keep burning even if the battery is completely drained of energy.
One of the primary ways an EV can catch fire in your shop is through a short circuit, which could happen if a high-voltage tool comes in contact with the vehicle's electrical system.
Vehicles often put off telltale signs of an impending fire, such as a smoking smell or weird noises. Being cognizant of those can help your shop remain alert for fires. Disconnecting a vehicle's electrical system and letting it sit for a day before beginning work on it will help significantly reduce combustion risk.
Making sure your team wears proper safety gear when working on electric vehicles and having fire suppression tools such as extinguishers nearby are also good mitigation techniques, though Spyic founder Katherine Brown says in the report says that ultimately, you won't be able to put out an electric vehicle fire without help.
"You will never be able to extinguish a car fire," she says. "Your role is to evacuate safely and get as much distance from the vehicle as you can while seeking help."
Graphic courtesy of AutoinsuranceEZ