Electric vehicle fires on ships & ferries

Updated: Apr 25

The Felicity Ace is drifting in the Atlantic with thousands of burning vehicles from the Volkswagen Group onboard, some of them electric. But what do we know about electric vehicle fires on ships & media claims that their lithium ion batteries are contributing to fire intensity & duration?


Key points:

  • If Felicity Ace enforced similar guidelines to other carriers, requiring EVs to be carried at less than 50% state of charge, are we just seeing modern vehicles burning without the additional fire intensity seen with EV lithium ion batteries?

  • In 2018, a fire on sister ship, the Sincerity Ace, took 9-10 days to subside with 3500 cars onboard. The Felicity Ace, carrying almost 4000 cars, has been actively burning for 7 days, with signs today that fire is subsiding.


Update:

The Felicity Ace capsized on 1 March 2022 during salvage works.

The ship's manifest showed it had


Observing the frenzied media attention about the Felicity Ace – a 200m long, 17 year old vehicle carrying vessel managed by Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd – it’s clear there’s much speculation, but little known, about exactly what’s burning aboard.


The early stages of this catastrophe barely registered with mainstream media. But when captain Joao Mendes Cabecas told Reuters that the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles were ‘keeping the fire alive’ suddenly the world’s news outlets shot the story to front page.

Burning car carrying ship in Atlantic
Felicity Ace vehicle carrier. Image: Portuguese Navy Handout/EPA

So far, we have only the captain’s word that EVs are onboard the Felicity Ace, with Volkwagen Group yet to confirm numbers. That hasn’t stopped headlines like 'EVs may not have sparked this cargo-ship fire, but they're a raging inferno now' & ‘Electric vehicles make it harder to quell fire on Felicity Ace’.


No doubt some of the reported $400 million worth of luxury passenger cars are electric, particularly as Volkswagen Group ramp production of their ID range, in which 11 battery electric vehicles (BEV) sit.


But what do we actually know about battery fires in VW electric vehicles, ship & ferry fires caused by EVs & fire propagation where EVs are involved?


A fire on a passenger ferry was caused by an EV in 2010


The first electric vehicle traction battery fire on water occurred on the vehicle deck of the MS Pearl of Scandinavia on 17th November 2010, as it was travelling from Oslo to Copenhagen.


The EV was a rebuilt Nissan Qashqai, that had been converted to a BEV by a Dutch enthusiast. When the battery went into thermal runaway, the car was connected to a 220V charging station via an extension cord manufactured by the owner so it could be used in multiple countries; a recipe for potential disaster in any situation. The total battery capacity of the converted Qashqai is unknown.


However, the official report by the Danish Institute of Fire & Security states the fire originated in the battery pack, but it wasn’t possible to determine exact cause. There were other EVs on the same ferry, but thankfully the fire didn’t spread to those vehicles. Images: MissCandy

Charging began at 2% battery state of charge; when fire broke out the vehicle was at 53%. The fire alarm system first alerted crew to smoke at 5:58am & the sprinkler system commenced initial suppression. Firefighters from Sweden were lowered to the ferry by helicopter & the fire was reported extinguished at 7:51am. All passengers & crew observed evacuation guidelines & disembarked safely.


The Danish Maritime Authority responded by temporarily banning charging for EVs & other vehicles on all vehicles. But the MS Pearl of Scandinavia wasn’t the first fire on what’s known as a ‘ro-ro’ (or roll-on, roll-off) passenger vehicle ferry; three other incidents on the Commodore Clipper, Lisco Gloria & Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, all in 2010, were all under investigation following car deck fires.


This converted Qashqai on the MS Pearl of Scandinavia is the only electric vehicle confirmed to have caused a marine vessel fire to date.


Three Volkswagen electric vehicles have caught fire since 2017


Electric vehicle battery fires are very rare, a fact we’ve proven through our research project EV FireSafe. That’s backed by the fact that Volkswagen Group have been selling plug-in EVs since 2014, with over 760,000 purchased in 2021 alone, but we’ve only been able to verify three lithium ion traction battery fires in VW electric vehicles.


In December 2017 an e-Golf caught fire in Germany, with 21 firefighters attending. The incident controller stated it was the first EV incident for their crews, stating ‘We have never had such a use with high voltage technology in the community here.’ Following battery cooling & fire suppression with water, crews rolled the e-Golf into a container of water to reduce risk of reignition. The cause of the fire is unknown.


In August 2021, an VW ID3 owner unplugged her EV from curbside charging in The Netherlands, placed her child in a car seat & then noticed smoke coming from the rear of the vehicle. Both mother & child were unharmed, however the ID3 was completely destroyed by fire. Cuase is currently unknown. Interestingly, a first generation Nissan LEAF parked behind was damaged by fire, but the battery pack did not ignite.

And just last week, on 13th February, a restaurant owner in Brussels called fire services about a ‘burnt smell’. Fire crews tracked the source to a private residential underground carpark where the building’s smoke & heat exhaust system had engaged due to an ID3 being fully involved in fire. It was parked by itself & not connected to charging.


The close proximity of an exhaust inlet to the ID3 enabled better visibility for crews, however they were unaware they were dealing with an EV initially. The vehicle was taken to ground level by a tow truck & submerged in a water container the Belgian fire service has developed for trial with electric vehicle suppression; this type of suppression/containment method is gaining popularity with some fire agencies, but isn’t always recommended by EV manufacturers. Images: photo_siamu112_bxl


How are car-carrying vessels responding to EV potential risk?


Catastrophic fires onboard car carrying vessels occur more frequently than you might think. In February 2017, The MV Honor had a upper vehicle deck fire caused by a starter motor solenoid, the Auto Banner had an overheated vehicle leading to fire in May 2018, the Grande America capsized in March 2018 following a fire started by a vehicle, the Sincerity Ace* went up in smoke on New Year’s Eve 2018 with the loss of five crew lives & the Diamond Highway, carrying 6300 vehicles, was abandoned in June 2019 due to fire.


The reason you haven’t heard about these fires is that they didn’t involve electric vehicles.


These losses combined with the rapid acceleration to electrified transport & the known difficulty of extinguishing lithium ion battery fires in any situation - let alone on a floating vessel surrounded by salt water (which can't be used to fight a lithium ion battery fire) - has led ferry & ship owners to action new safety measures when transporting EVs.


This is sensible given the obvious potential risk when transporting EV on ships, primarily uncontrolled movement of rolling cargo causing damaging the battery pack & initiating thermal runaway (an unstable chemical reaction within battery cells leading to ignition).


Early tests by a number of global battery experts indicates that lithium ion batteries under a lower state of charge (SoC) – usually around 50% - are unlikely to support thermal runaway.


That’s why United European Car Carriers (UECC), a company specialising in rolling cargo, have specified a minimum 20% & maximum 50% state of charge on electric vehicles, while requiring that battery EVs have ‘sufficient battery power to safely operate basic functions of vehicle’, while plug-in hybrid EVs should operate with EV mode disengaged.


Likewise, Wallenius Wilhelmsen requires a maximum SoC of 50%, while also promoting their services as electric vehicle supply chain experts for some of the world’s biggest EV manufacturers, such as MG SAIC.


In fact, most of the world’s largest shipping companies now require EVs to have a lower state of charge prior to transport of electric vehicles, while also being upbeat about their ability to service this growing sector & provide EV charging infrastructure in port & potentially onboard.


At the time of writing, we were unable to confirm the electric vehicle carrying requirements, or onboard charging capability, for Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd, manager of the Felicity Ace.


What about EV fire spread in carparks?


EV battery fire research is at the very start of a data-gathering journey, however an incident in EV-loving Norway provides an interesting look at fire spread involving EVs.


In January 2020 the Stavanger Airport multi-level carpark in Sola collapsed after an intense fire that also destroyed 300 vehicles. An unknown number of these were assumed to be electric vehicles, which is a safe guess given Norway’s high uptake of passenger EVs.

The Research Institute of Sweden (RISE) were tasked with answering the high voltage question asked following this incident, concluding ‘…electric vehicles did not contribute to the fire development beyond what is expected from conventional vehicles’.


Additionally, the RISE report pointed out that modern internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles have a ‘higher fire load & are on average wider than older vehicles’, giving a ‘more intense course of fire than older (ICE) ones’.


EV batteries are ‘keeping the fire alive’ on the Felicity Ace


Captain Joao Mendes Cabecas’ sound bite is media gold, & possibly correct; electric vehicle lithium ion traction battery fires are rare, but when they do happen, they typically require far more time, firefighters, water & resources than a traditionally fuelled car fire.


Whether a burning EV battery is unattended or under offensive firefighting attack, it will almost certainly burn for longer than ICE vehicles. Incident reports uncovered during our research commonly found EV fires took anywhere between 3 & 5 hours to extinguish, whereas an ICE fire may take less than an hour to make safe.


We don't know how many electric vehicles are onboard the Felicity Ace, whether they were grouped together on a single vehicle deck or what their individual battery state of charge was required to be.


But if Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd were following guidelines similar to other carriers, with a sub-50% SoC, we're potentially just seeing thousands of modern vehicles burning over a long period of time, without the additional intense & prolonged fire behaviour of EV batteries.


A scenario like this appears more likely when we compare this fire with a similar event. The Sincerity Ace, which caught fire on New Year's Eve 2018 carrying 3500 cars, was towed back to Japan from the 9th January 2019, meaning the fire took 9-10 days to burn out.


The Felicity Ace, carrying almost 4000 cars, first sent a Mayday message on 16th February 2022, with reports today (23rd February) that the fire is starting to subside. A fire event lasting 7 days so far, however we'll watch this incident for the official 'end' date.


Update: As of 24th February, many news sources stated the fire was out.

Burning cargo ship with firefighting tug aiming jets of water
Felicity Ace firefighting tug. Image: Portugese Navy

And, as per the RISE report on Stavanger Airport, even assuming electric vehicles on board the Felicity Ace were limited to 50% battery & ICE vehicle tanks similarly only partially filled with fossil fuels, thousands of modern electric & ICE vehicles packed into enclosed close quarters aboard a floating carpark are unlikely to become anything but a ‘raging inferno’.


The Felicity Ace fire is an environmental & economic catastrophe, there’s no mistaking that. Only time will tell exactly if & how EVs contributed to the blaze, how suppression systems need to change & what learnings will make future carriage of EVs safer.


What do we still need to learn about EV fires on ships & ferries?


As always, lots. Throughout 2022, we'll be working with emergency agencies to better understand land-based risks & test suppression products that may have application to ships & ferries.

If you'd like to keep up to date, we welcome you to join the mailing list where all information is shared first. You can also join us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn & YouTube.


Thanks for supporting our website & research.


*Some experts at the 2020 Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) seminar suggested reopening the investigation to the Sincerity Ace ship fire in 2018 to re-examine the role EVs played.


 

Update: All sources have been linked in this article, however I thought the following might also be of interest:



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