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02.2 The FAQs & facts about EV fires

Read these (before believing everything you see online!)

Too often, misinformation & misconceptions are driving news & online media coverage about EV traction battery fires. Through the course of this project, we've found that the poorly informed FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) factor is causing some unnecessary apprehension in Australia's firefighting & automotive community.

These are some of the frequently asked questions about EV fires & you can contact our Project Director if you have one not listed here.

Initial research findings infographic - mid year update (July 2022)

Please see our updated research findings (July 2022) with a breakdown of information for EV battery fires from 2010 - 2022. 

Click on image to download.

EVFS latest EV LiB fire stats July 22.png
  • Are EVs less likely to catch fire than petrol or diesel cars?
    Our intial research findings, based on global EV battery fires from 2010-2020, indicate a 0.0012% of a passenger electric vehicle battery catching fire. While it's difficult to find a similar stat for internal combustion engine (ICE) passenger vehicles globally, a range of country-based reports we found suggest there is a 0.1% chance of an ICE vehicle catching fire. In this FAQ list, there is additional evidence from other sources to suggest EVs are less likely to catch fire than ICE cars. We will continue to gather more data to continously provide a basis for accurate overall comparisons. You can keep up to date with this by joining us on social media or our mailling list.
  • What evidence is there to suggest EVs are less likely to catch fire?
    We'll add new findings here & in our blog as it comes to hand, but currently (November 2021) the evidence that EVs are less likely to catch fire than internal combustion vehicles includes: Tesla's 2020 Impact Report (pg 40) states: "From 2012 to 2020, there has been approximately one Tesla vehicle fire for every 205 million miles traveled. By comparison, data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and U.S. Department of Transportation show that in the U.S. there is one vehicle fire for every 19 million miles traveled." Professor Sun Fengchun, Beijing Institute of Technology & academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering stated at the 2020 Chinese Electric Vehicle Forum (translated) "The fire rate of new energy vehicles is 0.9 times per ten thousand vehicles, which is lower than 2 times per ten thousand vehicles of petrol vehicles." He called for a "calm and rational approach to the fire accidents of new energy vehicles." AutoInsuranceEZ* (US) looked at American-only data from the National Transport Safety Board, the Bureau of Transport Statistics & Vehicle Recalls from 2020 to conclude: "Hybrid vehicles actually come in number one with the most fires per 100K sales. Gas vehicles are second, and electric vehicles place third, with only 25 fires per 100K electric vehicle sales. Based on this data, electric vehicles don’t catch fire nearly as much as the news claims. Hybrid cars seem to be the most dangerous for fires, followed by gas vehicles." *Our team are currently attempting to confirm if these figures include a) hybrids that are not plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) and b) electric vehicle fires where the lithium ion traction battery was NOT involved in fire. Steven Risser, Senior Research Engineer at Battelle, who delivered a report for the US National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) said in a 2018 article for CNN Money: "The propensity and severity of fires and explosions from ... lithium ion battery systems are anticipated to be somewhat comparable to or perhaps slightly less than those for gasoline or diesel vehicular fuels." Mr Risser added in a 2021 Popular Science article "“The final answer to whether EV’s are more likely or less likely than ICE vehicles to experience a fire is still years away,” he notes via email. “We need to wait for EV’s to age to understand if this likelihood changes with wear on the vehicle/battery.”
  • Important points about our EV fire data
    Our research filtered incident information to refine our data to the highest level of accuracy possible. There are two important points to note here: EV fires don't necessarily involve the lithium ion traction battery Of the EV fires we've studied, not all involved the traction battery; ie. the vehicle body was the only thing on fire. These incidents are treated like any other vehicle fire (but care should be taken with towing & storage). It's important to note that some online sources are quoting figures that include ALL electric vehicle fires, rather than just those involving the traction battery, which artificially inflates the number of incidents overall. As an example, the Instituut Fysieke Veiligheid (Institute for Safety) in The Netherlands reports 77 in the first 6 months of 2021. However, they point out that only 6 of these involved a traction battery fire. We have NOT included these incidents in our project data. Not all EV traction battery fires start within the vehicle itself 4% of the EV traction battery fires we studied were caused by a fire that started externally to the vehicle; it was parked in a building that caught fire or near internal combustion vehicles that caught fire. We HAVE included these incidents in our project data as the traction battery was involved & managed by emergency responders.
  • Why are EV fires always in my news feed?
    Electric vehicles are an emerging technology, so when an EV catches fire it gets more media attention than other vehicle fires. This does not mean EV fires happen more frequently than petrol or diesel fires, but that EVs are under closer scrutiny & more likely to be publicly reported. We've also seen a number of media outlets leverage EV fires to create traffic to their website, promote new fire safety products or, depending on their political or idealogical leaning, use the 'fear, uncertainty, doubt' factor to portray EVs in a poor light. Additionally, some news articles quote data that hasn't been properly fact checked or is, at best, anecdotal. The simple truth is that petrol & diesel car fires occur frequently, but firefighters have extensive experience in ICE fire behaviour & suppression, so those fires are just not newsworthy. When it comes to EVs, we're still learning about the risks & challenges to emergency responders attending an electric vehicle fire. This gives EV fires a 'clickbait' advantage which, combined with social media activity algorithms, creates a media bias effect where news of similar incidents will appear on your feed more often, giving you the (false) impression they're occuring more frequently than they actually are. "A battery-powered vehicle having a fire incident is newsworthy. A gasoline-powered vehicle having a fire is newsworthy only if it stops traffic." Steven Risser, Senior Research Engineer, Battelle.
  • Do EVs ignite without warning?
    It's unlikely. In all incidents we studied, there were a number of warning signs an EV was about to ignite, including: Warning light on the dashboard Dark & light clouds of vapour Popping or hissing noises In all incidents where drivers & passengers were not injured in a collision, they were able to exit the vehicle before it become fully involved in fire. Important: becoming familiar with the vapour & fire behaviour of an EV traction battery fire may assist emergency responders in identifying an electric vehicle & managing an incident.
  • Will my EV explode without warning?
    It's unlikely. When we talk about an explosion in this context, we're typically referring to a vapour cloud explosion. A vapour cloud appears when an EV traction battery has gone into thermal runaway; abused lithium ion battery cells release gases at the rate of around 700L per 1kWh of battery capacity*. As that vapour mixes with oxygen, it may deflagrate - burn off quickly or explode - if there is an ignition point, such as overheated battery cell. The vapour cloud is a warning sign there is a potential risk of explosion, however in the incidents we studied, only 11% describe a vapour cloud explosion. In cases where the vehicle was being driven, the driver & any passengers were able to exit the vehicle when vapour was noticed & before the explosion happened. Some occured while the vehicle was empty & parked. Important: a vapour cloud is easliy confused with smoke. Please watch the videos on the What is Thermal Runaway page to see the difference. *Stat credit Professor P Christensen, University of Newcastle
  • Will a damaged electric vehicle electrocute me?
    During discussions with a number of international subject matter experts & fire agencies, our project discovered that there is a lower than expected electrocution risk to emergency responders attending an incident in which an electric vehicle battery or high voltage (HV) cables & components are damaged. Using normal personal protective clothing & equipment, emergency responders should be safe to suppress an EV fire with water. We go into more detail here: Electrocution risk with EV suppression, extrication, submersion & stranded energy Electrocution risk with EV fires connected to energised charging Important: There still remains an electrocution risk to emergency responders at an electric vehicle incident & your agency SOPs should be followed.
  • What evidence is there to suggest EVs catch fire more than petrol or diesel cars?
    Currently only one piece of information suggests EVs fire are more prevalent, however our team are currently attempting to confirm whether the figures reported here include EVs where the lithium ion traction battery was NOT involved in fire. Air Quality News online in October 2020 reported on a FoI request from the London Fire Brigade & stated: "Data obtained by Air Quality News through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed that in 2019 the London Fire Brigade dealt with just 54 electric vehicle fires compared to 1,898 petrol and diesel fires.Similarly, so far in 2020, the fire services have dealt with 1,021 petrol and diesel fires and just 27 electric vehicle fires." Some media outlets used these figures to make claims like this from Auto Fleet News (UK) "Looking at the London Fire Brigade data, that would suggest an incident rate of 0.04% for petrol and diesel car fires, while the rate for plug-in vehicle is more than double at 0.1%. So far this year, there have been 1,021 petrol and diesel fires and 27 EV fires in the capital."
  • What is an EV fire?
    When we use the term 'EV fire' as part of this project, we're talking about a vehicle fire that involves an electric vehicle lithium ion traction battery. EV fires that do not involve the traction battery can be extinguished like any other vehicle & are not considered in this project.
  • What causes an EV fire?
    EV fires occur when a lithium ion battery cell is abused & short circuits. This abuse typically happens when the vehicle is involved in a collision or is hit by debris on the road, has a battery fault or is submerged in water. A number of incidents we studied occured when a vehicle was connected to energised charging, or in vehicles that were converted from internal combustion to electric, or while undergoing repairs. You can see our findings of circumstance & cause at the EV fire global timeline page.
  • Are EV fires harder to suppress?
    Yes. Due to the nature of thermal runaway, the suppression of an EV fire may take longer & require more resources compared to a petrol or diesel vehicle fire.
  • Can you drive an electric vehicle through water?
    Yes, driving in rain & through puddles of water is perfectly safe in an electric vehicle. An EV would need to be completely submerged in water for an extended period for any damage to occur. However, no vehicle should be driven through flood waters!
  • Are electric vehicles safe?
    Yes. There a number of preventative safety systems built into any modern vehicle, including electric vehicles, & we have found nothing to suggest that driving an EV is unsafe from a fire perspective.
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