2011-11-28

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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3 Comments

  • Sergiof_unb

    It's hard to say wether the cause was a battery internal issue or a misfixed wire or else. The important thing to keep in mind is that the electric cars are a big innovation for the automotive industry because it will have to stop producing many parts such as radiators, injections, rods, crankshafts, gearboxes, tanks, exhaust pipes, etc. And it is from this parts productions that comes their profits.

  • Mac

    actually the gearbox is still there, but you can only have one gear because no one has invented a strong enough transmission for electric cars yet.

  • Oldshuz

    I believe there have been only two fires. The first 3 weeks after a severe crash in which the battery was compromised and not drained (per GM instructions). Equivalent to damaging a gas tank and not draining the gas out of it - surprise there is a greater chance of fire. In the next three lab tests on the battery alone (no vehicle) the NHTSA technicians were trying to cause the fire. Battery cases were damaged then rotated to get the coolant to spill and coat the battery. One showed an elevated temperature (not public how much), one sparked and smoked (although from an unknown location?) and the third caught fire a week after it was damaged and again not drained. This is clearly a witch hunt by an out of control lab director looking for his/her 15 min of fame. Unfortunately if you are GM you can't attack this because they are a government agency and have ultimate power to extract revenge in the future.