Teschler on Topic
Leland Teschler • Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW_LeeTeschler
I recently passed an unfortunate soul on the highway whose vehicle was engulfed in smoke. This incident brought back memories of my own car fire back in the 1970s. I was driving along when suddenly the guy behind me began laying on his horn for some reason. I soon learned why: He probably could see flames shooting out from beneath my car.
It turns out I had an engine fire that was probably due to a leaky fuel system, usually cited as the most common cause for car fires. Fuel leaks can develop as a car ages and, in hindsight, was something I probably should have been looking out for, given the elderliness of the rust bucket I drove.
Fortunately the number of vehicle fires has dropped dramatically since my own incident. The National Fire Protection Association estimates the number of highway vehicle fires in 2018 was 60% lower than in 1980, and the rates of fires per billion miles driven and fire deaths per 100 billion miles driven were 81% and 65% lower, respectively. Overall, the NFPA says U.S. fire departments responded to about 212,500 vehicle fires in 2018 which killed roughly 560 civilians.
That brings us to fires in electric vehicles. While news outlets generally ignored most of the 212,500 vehicle fires in 2018 where there is no loss of life, any kind of EV fire seems to make page-one headlines. Ditto for car-maker recalls of EVs to correct manufacturing defects that boost the chance of a visit from the fire department.
Nevertheless, much of the hand wringing about EV fires is probably unwarranted. To put things into perspective, statistics are that about one in every five active vehicles has been subject to some kind of recall in recent years, making an EV recall a so-what event. There aren’t enough EVs on the road to accumulate data about the likelihood of EV fires. But initial indications from the NFPA are that fires in EVs may be less common than in those with a combustion system.
The reasons aren’t difficult to understand. One interesting NFPA statistic is that only 21% of all modern-day vehicle fires have a root cause in the vehicle electrical system. With that datum in mind, it might be reasonable to think that EVs are only about 20% as likely as ordinary cars to have a fire.
And the fires they have may not be particularly lethal. It takes time for enough energy to accumulate and trigger thermal runaway in a battery, unlike my 1970s beater where a gas leak combined with a hot manifold quickly put the car in flames. So it’s rational to expect EVs will incorporate heat detectors able to head off such scenarios. Knowing that fires become more common as vehicles get old, a combination of safeguards and inspections can probably minimize fire risks in old EVs.
All in all, one behavioral change an EV revolution should bring is less concern about fires. For myself, I still get needled occasionally by those riding with me about keeping a fire extinguisher in my back seat. DW
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