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Confidence in EVs Wanes as GM Recalls Bolt EVs for Catching Fire

August 31, 2021 by Lianne Frith

As EV adoption accelerates, so too are reports of battery fires on the rise. But are these fires all that more common than ICE vehicle fires?

Electric vehicles (EVs) have drastically changed the global car industry over the last decade thanks to the rapid development of high-energy Li-ion battery technology. However, it is these same batteries that have created a safety concern for EVs. With several fire incidents hitting the headlines over the past years, we look at the risks and hazards associated with battery-powered EVs and how they are impacting the adoption of EVs. 

 

A Recent History of EV Fires

It wasn’t long ago that people doubted whether EVs could become mainstream. Fast forward to 2021: the Biden administration is pushing for half of all car sales to be EVs by 2030. However, public opinion remains divided. While the cars have obvious environmental benefits, they don’t have the same long-term safety data as internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. 


A Tesla Model S is on fire after a roadway collision

A Tesla Model S is on fire after a roadway collision. Image used courtesy of Flickr [CC 1.0]

 

Several major fires have shaped public opinion so far. 

 

November 2011: Chevrolet Volt

After safety testing by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) three weeks prior, the car suddenly started to smolder and burn. Investigators determined the battery as the source of the fire

 

May 2012: BYD e6

Following a crash in Shenzhen, China, an EV hit a tree and caught fire, killing all three of its occupants. The fire was caused by short-circuiting of high-voltage lines, which ignited combustible material in the vehicle. 

 

October 2012: Fisker Karma

A fleet of 16 Fisker Karma EVs were covered by over five feet of seawater by Superstorm Sandy for several hours. The saltwater left corrosive residue on the control unit, causing a short circuit

 

October 2013: Tesla Model S

A car caught fire in Seattle when it was accidentally driven over some metal that punctured the undercarriage and penetrated the battery pack. Within 30 minutes, the car was in flames.

 

October 2017: Tesla Model S

A fire initiated in the battery at the front of a vehicle in Arlberg, Austria, after a collision with a concrete wall. The severe fire produced toxic gases and required large amounts of water to cool down the battery. 

 

August 2018: LiIfan 650

A car in Guangzhou, China, spontaneously combusted after a heavy rainstorm. Water leaking into the battery pack, creating a short circuit and leading to thermal runaway. 

 

July 2021: Chevrolet Bolt

An EV parked in a private driveway in Thetford, Vermont, burst into flames while being charged. The fire within the passenger compartment was reportedly caused by an undetermined electrical system failure

 

EV Fires vs. ICE Vehicle Fires

There have been many EV incidents in the past few years. However, while receiving less attention, there have also been many ICE vehicle fires. One study by the London Fire Brigade found that in 2019, there was an incident rate of 0.04% for petrol and diesel car fires compared to 0.1% for EV fires. However, reports from Tesla, incorporating data from the National Fire Protection Association and US Department of Transportation, suggest that ICEs catch fire at a vastly higher rate than EVs: one fire for every 19 million miles traveled compared with one for every 205 million miles traveled in a Tesla. 

Regardless of the frequency, a major concern is the cause of these fires. Many EV fires occur as the battery slowly degrades over time after an incident. It’s not a problem confined to cars; when chemical energy build in a small space, fire or explosions are a risk. But it’s worth noting that the best Li-ion batteries only hold two percent of the energy compared to gasoline. However, once a battery fire gets started, it can be harder to put out than a gasoline fire, taking up to 24 hours to fully extinguish. 


Under the hood of the Chevrolet Bolt

Under the hood of the Chevrolet Bolt. Image used courtesy of Inside EVs

 

Opinions have been skewed significantly by General Motors’ recent recall of its Chevrolet Bolt EV, covering all 2019–2022 models. The recall is due to rare instances of manufacturing defects in the batteries, which have caused recent EV fires. In a prior investigation of Chevy Volt fires, the NHTSA reported that it did not believe that Chevrolet Volts or other EVs pose a greater risk of fire than ICE vehicles. The administration hopes this assurance will build customer confidence, but this recall could well be a step back for overall EV adoption. 

 

What Systems Are in Place to Prevent Fires?

EV fires are caused in three main ways:

  • Overcharging faults or insecure charging stations
  • Traffic accidents
  • Reignition after the initial damage

However, there are systems in place to prevent these fires from happening. Internal firewalls built into the battery pack structure aim to stop the fire from entering the passenger compartment and prevent mishaps in one module from spreading to another. The battery packs are also cooled with a glycol-based chemical cocktail to remove excess heat. One of the biggest safety measures is the battery management system (BMS).


BMS

Infineon says their product offerings satisfy the many functions of a BMS. Image used courtesy of Infineon

 

The BMS within EVs offer a level of safety not found in ICE vehicles. They control and optimize the performance of multiple battery modules. This gives the car the power to disconnect systems, improve performance, and identify faults.

The battery system is kept within operational limits via bus communication, ensuring the voltage, current, and temperature profiles comply with safety procedure requirements. This should stop over- and under-charging issues and can alert the navigation systems, as seen in the Tesla 2013 fire. While these systems clearly make a difference, some studies suggest that there are gaps within the current standards for BMS safety and that a technical review is required. 

 

Safety Remains a Pressing Concern

Some fire risk relating to EVs is inevitable due to high demands in driving performance and charging speeds. As the market share increases, reports of these novel fires are going to become more common. However, studies show that EV fires are comparable to fossil-fueled fires, and the combustion potential is, in fact, lower.

Still, safety protocols for electric vehicles are clearly an industry concern. EV engineering will be pivotal as collaborations and future research drive the market forward. 

3 Comments
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    PhilTilson September 03, 2021

    Can one really trust anything in an article that gets fundamental points wrong: “... ICEs catch fire at a vastly higher rate than EVs: one fire for every 205 million miles traveled compared with one for every 19 million miles traveled in a Tesla”.  Wrong way round, Lianne!

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    • D
      Dale Wilson September 03, 2021
      Thank you for bringing the mistake in this article to our attention. The conclusion from Teslas report was accurate, but the two numbers had been accidentally flipped when presenting the data. We have now corrected the article.
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    Nozzleman September 03, 2021

    I’m a firefighter. The thing you need to be aware of is that if you are trapped in an EV and it goes into runaway battery fire, I am not likely to be able to get you out. These fires burn at incredible temperatures for hours and water does little if anything. On other forums, Class D extinguishers are suggested. I am in the middle of the Dallas Ft Worth TX Metromess (population about 6 million) and it would take me an hour, if I was lucky, to have a class D extinguisher on scene. If you are out in the middle of nowhere, there is just going to be a burned spot on the asphalt.

    I have yet to see an ICE car fire that took over the amount of water (500-750 gallons) I had in the tank. A truck fire is a different story obviously a different story.

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