Towing a burnt electric vehicle - the risks

Updated: Apr 25

The towing & transport of electric vehicles carries significant new risks & challenges that are not yet well understood by either Australian or international tow truck operators & companies or fire agencies.


But as we move into an electrified world & increasingly need to move & store EVs - particularly those that have been involved in collision or fire - how can we keep the vital secondary responder community safer?


In particular, what do we need to learn & share with the towing & vehicle transport sectors that will assist drivers & operators to better understand risk, know when they've got a potential problem & be able to identify EV lithium ion battery fire behaviour?


How common are EV battery fires involving tow trucks & vehicle transport?


Our research identified 7 incidents where tow or transport trucks were damaged or destroyed by initial fire or a reignition*.


In 4 of these incidents, tow drivers suffered injuries, at least 1 serious enough for hospitalisation due to burns & smoke inhalation.


In 6 incidents, reignition of the electric vehicle's battery pack following initial suppression was the cause of the damage or injury.


So, as a quick explainer, reignition, or secondary ignition, occurs after an EV lithium-ion traction battery has gone into thermal runaway, ignited & been suppressed by firefighters.


Following this initial suppression, another (undamaged) part of the battery pack has then gone into thermal runaway, therefore causing another - seperate - fire event. These further ignitions have sometimes occurred while the vehicle is being loaded on a tow truck or during transit.


Reignition can happen multiple times over hours, days or weeks. Read more at EV Fire Reignition on our website.


A look at tow truck & vehicle transport incidents involving EV battery fires


We've collated a list, with images & footage, of EV battery fire incidents involving tow trucks & vehicle transport below, & you can also download the free infographic.


2017, Lake Forest, California - Driver lost control, crashed EV into residential garage.

  1. Initial ignition upon impact.

  2. Reignition upon loading onto tow truck.

  3. Vapour released, but no flame, in storage yard.

Tow truck operator burnt, truck minor damage.

Incident footage; watch from 2.30 for towing involvement.



2018, Mountain View, California - Collision with concrete barrier on highway.

  1. Initial ignition upon impact.

  2. Reignition in tow yard, 5 days after initial incident.

Minor damage to yard.

Footage: NTSB, watch from 2:12 for tow yard second suppression.



2018, Fort Lauderdale, Florida - Collision with concrete curb & light pole at speed.

  1. Initial ignition upon impact.

  2. Reignition on tow truck.

  3. Reignition in police storage.

Tow truck operator burnt, truck minor damage.

Images: Two fatalities in this incident, images withheld out of respect to families.



2018, Los Gatos, Florida - Driver experienced sudden drop in tyre pressure, pulled into a nearby auto repair workshop where EV battery ignited.

  1. 'Repeated' ignition at scene. 5-6 hours spent cooling battery.

  2. Reignition later that evening in tow yard.

Tow yard minor damage.

Suppression footage: watch from 11:22 for explainer by Fire Chief.



2018, Davie, Florida - Collision with tree at speed.

  1. Initial ignition upon impact.

  2. 'Repeated' reignition in Police yard.

Tow truck narrowly escaped damage.

Images: Single fatality in this incident, images withheld out of respect to families.



2019, Port Moody, Canada - Submersion in ocean at boat ramp.

  1. Initial ignition upon removal from boat ramp (caused by short circuit in salt water)

  2. Reignition upon loading onto tow truck

Tow truck operator burnt, truck minor damage.

Image: @J___Squared



2019, Nevada, USA - Transport truck carrying 5 x Teslas & 1 x Subaru ignited in transit. Driver separated truck from trailer.

  1. Initial ignition completely destroyed carried vehicles & trailer.

Tow truck operator burnt, trailer destroyed.

Images: Elko Daily via InsideEVs



2020, Vienna, Virginia, USA - Parked vehicle, not charging, released vapour cloud & ignited.

  1. Initial ignition.

  2. Reignition within an hour of initial ignition.

  3. Towed to dealership, reignited.

Tow truck narrowly escaped damage.

Images: Hajime Rojas



Are these EV battery fire events common?


Our team have collated a list of all electric vehicle battery fires since 2010 to assist fire & automotive sector stakeholders better understand the occurrence & risks in a world of electrified transport.


It's good to know that EV battery fires are very rare, a fact we mention frequently. At the end of 2020, there were over 10 million EVs on the road globally, & we've been able to verify less than 200 battery fires.


However, the risks to all responders, including tow truck operators, vehicle transport drivers, & storage yards cannot be dismissed.


Download the towing & vehicle transport infographic


We've collated our EV fire towing & transport research into a single infographic, that you can download by clicking the link below.


EV FireSafe Towing & Vehicle Transport involved in EV fires
.pdf
Download PDF • 2.91MB


What do we still need to learn about these EV fire incidents?


As with other emergency & automotive sectors, there's a lot for the towing & transport community to research & learn as the e-transition accelerates.


Throughout 2022, we'll be working with emergency agencies to better understand risk & will share our findings as they become available.


We're also developing an online training course for the towing, vehicle transport & storage sectors, to help everyone better understand EV fires & develop safety SOPs.


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.


As always, thanks for supporting our website & research!

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