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Monday, May 27, 2024
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Electric vehicles – a hazard too far?

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AS AN average Joe seeing stories pop up about electric vehicle fires and failures, I ask questions. The most important to me is: With increasing types and numbers of electric powered modes of transport, are we seeing the dangers of them clearly enough, here and globally? I don’t think so.

Searching the net, I have come across a variety of information and it is quite shocking in most cases. Let’s start with some facts. 

Energy Live News  reports that there has been an 83 per cent surge in EVs bursting into flames from July 2022 to June this year, up to 239 from the 130 incidents reported during the previous year. As of June 2023, there has been an average of 20.1 unintended EV fires per month. They attribute the increase to the rapid rise and ‘the growing presence of EVs on British roads,  spanning cars, trucks, e-bikes, and electric scooters.’ 

The second question I ask is: How do these incidents begin? It is down to what powers them, the battery, which can be very easily damaged. A pothole, hitting a kerb, debris on the road, software malfunction, all these are possible. That battery damage is not always immediately noticeable. You can park unaware of danger to come, not just for you but for everyone else in the car park or on the kerbside where you have left the vehicle. You can plug it in and have no idea if the vehicle’s safety software is functioning to prevent overheating. Just consider, how many times has your phone malfunctioned? 

Then there is the question of why electric vehicle fires are so difficult to put out. Scientists are still trying to discover what happens chemically when a lithium-ion battery catches fire. How can we solve the problem of putting them out without fully understanding what’s going on? 

That’s all before we come to the dangers this poses in other transportation arenas. For example, one aspect of widespread electric car adoption that has yet to be figured out is sea transport. Motoring journalist Sam D Smith writes: ‘The shipping world isn’t ready for the risks EVs pose. It’s an issue troubling everyone, from insurers to emergency response officials. And for the moment, there seems to be no quick fix in sight.’ 

This was brought into sharp focus in July when the cargo ship Fremantle Highway, carrying nearly 500 EVs and more than 3,000 conventional vehicles, caught fire off the Dutch coast. The blaze continued for several days before it could be controlled. There seems to be little argument that the inferno originated in the battery of an electric car and that the number of EVs made it more challenging for firefighters to control.

Taking up the story, Reuters says that EV lithium-ion batteries burn with twice the energy of a normal fire, and that the maritime industry and insurers simply haven’t kept up with ‘the developing technology and how it creates greater risk’. Insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) says 209 ship fires were reported during 2022, the highest number in a decade and 17 per cent more than in 2021. Of that total, 13 occurred on car carriers. 

If EVs on shipping ferries are a hazard, what about in tunnels, a risk that’s not widely discussed; in fact any enclosed spaces where an electric vehicle fails? This Australian research says that single EV fires in tunnels would be manageable but ‘questions remain about the consequences of multiple simultaneous EV battery fires or fires involving heavy EVs such as electric buses or trucks with high-capacity batteries. Also, the fire risk of future EVs with different battery technologies hitting the market remains uncertain’.


The risks don’t stop with tunnels. Watch this video of a garage door bursting out, narrowly missing a firefighter, and landing 30ft away. It is claimed that the explosion was caused by EV car battery vapour igniting.

That took me to looking at the gases released by EV fires. Sure, any vehicle fire will have dangerous smoke, but EV fires can be more toxic, the release of hydrogen fluoride being one example.  

Are the emergency services fully aware of the dangers they face with EV fires? Do the public know the dangers of being in the vicinity of electric vehicle fires? 

The insurance industry seems to be waking up to the problem, and some are refusing to insure EVs. General Motors CEO Mary Barra has just announced that the firm is abandoning its EV production targets.  

But what is government doing? Still spending lots of money on electric buses like here in Bradford, where emergency services recently battled a double decker bus fire in the city centre. Not an EV but bad enough.

I am just an ordinary citizen. I see news stories (puzzle pieces) and I go looking. Maybe you too need to ask more questions and demand answers from those in power. Profits for who and dangers for who?  I think you know the answer. 

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For those of you interested in the science perspectives on the thermal safety of batteries here are some useful links:

·       Thermal runaway behaviour of lithium-ion batteries in different charging states under low pressure 

·       Analysis of gas release during the process of thermal runaway of lithium-ion batteries with three different cathode materials 

·       Analysis of combustion gases from large-scale electric vehicle fire tests 

·       Toxic gases from electric vehicle fires 

·       Toxic fluoride gas emissions from lithium-ion battery fires 

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Tony Ham
Tony Ham
Tony Ham is a delivery driver.

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