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Sunday, June 23, 2024
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HomeCulture WarElectric cars on ferries – a nightmare waiting to happen

Electric cars on ferries – a nightmare waiting to happen

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I LIVE in France and every few years I go to the UK to visit my family. I travel by car via a Channel ferry. Recent electric vehicle (battery and hybrid – BEVs) fires have made me realise that if there was a BEV fire on a ferry the result could be devastating. I wrote to the CEO of Brittany Ferries with my concerns. He passed the letter to Customer Services for a reply which was the usual ‘You have no problems; we have it all in hand’. Unfortunately I cannot give their reply as they claim that it is personal and confidential to me, but my engineering experience made me doubt the assurances. I replied with this letter, which I have abbreviated for this article.

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The recent catastrophic results of fires in BEVs on vessels have been reported in the press and fire journals (and in TCW here). The intensity of a BEV fire is extraordinary: sufficient to buckle the sides of the Felicity Ace, resulting in her sinking. The Fremantle Highway, I understand, was saved. The recent fire at Luton Airport is a ‘wake-up’ call to the danger of closely packed cars in car parks and ferries. 

Recently there have been three reports which concern BEVs on ferries.

1) A UK Government report that, to my mind, washes its hands and passes the responsibility to the ferry owners in dealing with BEVs on their ships. It is a typical Governmental report: it refuses to take responsibility for the result of its own legislation.

2) A ten-minute video produced by LASH fire, an international research project aiming to reduce the risk of fires on ro-ro ships. At 7m33 we have the statement that ‘a fire in a BEV is no different than that in a gasoline powered car’. I find this statement extraordinary. 

3) A long report from Arup which mainly deals with the dangers of charging BEVs in car parks. I hope that this report will stop Brittany Ferries from even thinking about putting charging points for BEVs on their ferries. Now to take some points from your Customer Services e-mail to me.

* A number of concrete actions have already been implemented, including the following: Identification of electric cars upon arrival at ports. Windscreen stickers allow easy allocation of electric car parking on decks and identification by crew patrolling the ship.  

 Good idea. When I travel I will avoid them like the plague.

* Heat detectors (mobile and fixed) have been deployed across the fleet, starting with ships serving long routes to Spain. These monitor the garage space for any heat anomalies during a voyage, allowing crew to identify a problem vehicle quickly and prevent a fire before it takes hold. 

Another good idea, but are they working correctly? How often are they checked or calibrated? For how long can the crew be expected to be vigilant before boredom and/or laziness descend upon them?

* Fire blankets have been provided across all Brittany Ferries vessels and crew have been trained in the most effective way to deploy them.  

The use of fire blankets and other specialist textile boundaries must be carefully considered due to the restricted access around vehicles on a ro-ro deck and the risks to crew to deploy a fire blanket.

a) The positioning of the fire blanket relies on removing air (oxygen) from the burning car. This can be done only on a petrol or diesel fire as lithium-ion batteries in BEVs produce their own oxygen during the chemical action if the battery is on fire.

b) If a fire blanket was placed over a BEV fire I wonder how long that the blanket would remain an integral unit as it would be subject to over 2,000°C heat for a considerable time (rather than 1,000°C for a short time for a petrol or diesel fire). The blanket would also concentrate the fire and, as was seen with the side wall of the Felicity Ace, buckle (and burn through?) the deck of the ship. If this happened you could have the danger of a fire in the deck below.

* All ferries are fitted with sprinkler systems designed to douse decks from above in the event of a fire.   

Responders should always protect themselves with full PPE, including a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which should be worn whenever at risk of exposure to the smoke from an electric vehicle battery fire, and take appropriate measures to protect crew and passengers downwind from the incident. During thermal-runaway, off-gassing occurs – this is a release of various gases from the battery, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and volatile organic compounds. Do trained firefighters have their own personal protection clothing and breathing equipment? Is it inspected regularly during periods of non-use? When there is a changeover of crew do the firefighters take their personal equipment with them, or is it left on board for others to use? Does each ship have a designated fire chief?

The Arup report gives some figures of the quantity of non-salt water required to cool (not extinguish) a BEV which is on fire. This is 1,500 litres per minute = 90,000 litres per hour for several hours; plus extra non-seawater to cool the cars that are close to the BEV which is on fire. Does a ferry carry that amount of water? Seawater cannot be used.  In Florida last spring, several BEVs went on fire when flooding from sea water shorted the batteries. There is a video of a BEV which accidentally went into the sea and can be seen to be burning, although it is under water.

My conclusion is that BEVs are such a nightmare that they should be banned from travelling on ferries as the Norwegian shipping company Havila Kystruten has done. 

I admit that you may think that I am a ‘pain in the ****’, but I value my life and I love my vehicle.

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John Marlow
John Marlow
John Marlow is an 86-year-old granddad. He worked for 40 years as an Engineer/Scientist in Research and Development before retiring to France. He has refurbished his 350-year-old farm worker’s house and transformed a 1¼ acre bramble wilderness into a beautiful garden.

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