Will Your Electric Car Burst Into Flames?

Maybe. But keep in mind that your other car is filled with a flammable liquid and bursts into flames very, very frequently.

Electric cars detractors have a laundry list of complaints about battery-powered vehicles—they have limited range, the charging infrastructure is still small, the vehicles take too long to charge, and they can be pricey without government incentives. Now there’s more cannon fodder for EV haters thanks to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has seen three Chevy Volt batteries catch on fire following crash tests over the past month. Should EV drivers keep a fire extinguisher in the trunk, or is the danger overhyped?

Well, do you keep a fire extinguisher in the trunk of your current car? As the NHTSA explains in its statement on the tests, there haven’t been any reported battery-related fires in lithium-ion powered vehicles during real-world use. Ever. And according to the National Fire Protection Association, there are 33 car fires reported every hour in the U.S. Cars, as you know, are powered by large tanks of incredibly flammable liquid.

The Volt’s problems started in mid-November, when a Volt caught fire three weeks after being crash-tested. The fire reportedly began in the battery pack and became big enough to damage nearby vehicles. Further tests later in the month yielded equally disturbing results. During one crash test that simulated driving into a tree or utility pole on November 16th, an increase in the battery’s temperature was logged, but no fire resulted. In the next crash test, the battery pack heated up again. After the final test, smoke and sparks came out of the battery pack.

No one really knows why this is happening. The NHTSA admits as much in a statement: "NHTSA is not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. However, the agency is concerned that damage to the Volt’s batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire. NHTSA is therefore opening a safety defect investigation of Chevy Volts, which could experience a battery-related fire following a crash. Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern."

GM says that the problem only happens when there is electrical charge left in the Volt following a crash. If the battery is drained, there isn’t an issue—much like how fire risk decreases in a gasoline-powered car if there isn’t much gas left in the tank after a crash.

Regardless, GM is offering free loaner cars to any Volt owners who are concerned by the safety test, even though the company maintains that the vehicle is safe.

Chances are, fire risk won’t end up being a big concern for EV drivers. Just add it to the list of EV myths that need to be debunked.

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