- Several Tesla vehicles have caught fire recently, spurring concerns that the cars and their batteries are hazardous.
- The statistics about electric-vehicle fires aren’t worrying, but Tesla attracts a lot of attention, so every reported fire has been scrutinised.
- In fact, more than 170,000 vehicles, including both electric and internal combustion cars, caught fire between 2014-2016. And those fires were just in the US, according to 2018 data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (Fewer than 1% involved fatalities.)
- Some 60% of the fatal vehicle fires FEMA tracked were due to a collision; the remainder were caused by other factors.
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A minor panic has set in about Teslas catching fire, with several recent incidents in the US, China, and Hong Kong.
Some of the fires are under investigation because the vehicles appear to have combusted for no obvious reason. There is always a small risk of overheating with the types of batteries that Tesla and other vehicles use, but the unexplained fires are worrisome.
However, it’s always worth noting that electric vehicles are considered statistically no more likely to burst into flames than gas-powered cars. And they might be statistically safer; it’s difficult to tell now, as their sample sizes are dwarfed by internal-combustion (ICE) cars.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sponsored a study on the questions of electric vehicles and fires in 2017, which concluded that “the propensity and severity of fires and explosions from the accidental ignition of flammable electrolytic solvents used in [lithium-ion] battery systems are anticipated to be somewhat comparable to or perhaps slightly less than those for gasoline or diesel vehicular fuels.”
Still, a combination of a very human fear of fire and Tesla’s outsized position in the global auto industry has led to a predictable fixation on its runaway thermal occurrences, to borrow the technical term for battery fires.
Tesla has generally been proactive in dealing with fires. The company shielded its early battery packs for the Model S sedan to protect them from road damage that could lead to combustion, and it advises emergency crews to douse battery conflagrations with thousands of gallons of water (foam, a means of fighting gas fires, can be used if water isn’t available, but only to keep the blaze at bay). The carmaker also helps responders to deal with the voltages in Tesla vehicles when conducting rescues, and in reaction to recent fires, it updated vehicle software.
Electric cars could end up being safer than ICE cars
Electric vehicles have the potential to be safer than their gas-powered relatives. But as far as lowering fire risk is concerned, we won’t have any definitive sense of whether EVs are better until there are many more on the road, or until solid-state batteries replace lithium-ion units.
The drivetrain of an EV is far simpler than what you’d find in an internal-combustion car: a large lithium-ion battery pack, made up of smaller cells (thousands, in Tesla’s case) sends power to one or more electric motors to move the wheels.
Contrast that with the hundreds of millions petrol vehicles on the road today. The internal-combustion engine requires a tank filled with an extremely volatile, flammable liquid; that liquid is then pumped under great pressure to an engine where, typically, it’s mixed with air, sprayed into combustion chambers, ignited, and exploded, over and over and over again.
The energy from the fuel is transformed from potential power to kinetic power, with the up-down movement of the cylinders mechanically converted from linear motion to rotational motion, routed to the wheels through several shafts and a transmission packed with gears.
Rube Goldberg would be impressed. It’s a testament to the skill of engineers that this entire clattering apparatus doesn’t fly apart due to its own violent nature. Oh, wait, internal combustion engines can literally blow themselves to pieces. These days, that’s usually in a race car being driven under extreme conditions on a track, but old-timers such as yours truly can remember when motors would throw a rod, blow a head gasket, seize up, or when cars would burn after their gas tanks were compromised.
They also sometimes combust when they’re just sitting around.BMW recalled about a million cars in 2017 to address such a risk – which is, in fairness, extremely low in modern automobiles. Gas-vehicle fires are also easier to extinguish, while fires from electric-vehicle batteries can burn for hours or even days, sometimes reigniting after firefighters think the blaze is over (this happened with a Tesla earlier this year in Florida.)
The problem with thinking that engineering is magic
Not grasping that an automobile is a type of well-managed detonation leads to magical thinking and toxic misunderstandings. But if you know even just a little bit about engineering, you understand that an electric vehicle’s technology is not that much different from your iPhone or laptop meeting up with a blender. In fact, a Tesla car is basically a large remote-control car, it’s just too challenging for a child to operate.
My father and uncle were both engineers, and my grandfather was an amateur mechanic, so I grew up around the demystification of machines. But I don’t think my insights are unique. Anyone can plainly see that the design of an electric vehicle is potentially safer than an internal-combustion car. (That takes nothing away from the engineers who have been working on ICE cars for decades; they have created magnificent levels of safety from a dangerous initial idea.)
Still, it’s worth considering that to get my iPhone battery to spark and burn, I’d have to smash it with something heavy, a lot, and it might not combust (the battery also might malfunction on its own and short-circuit). Whereas all I need to do to ignite gasoline is strike a match.
Look, I get it. Runaway thermal events, a.k.a. battery fires, are scary – more so because thermal runaway with lithium-ion batteries can happen in seemingly random ways. There have been Tesla accidents that have involved fires and tragic loss of life.
Adding to the concern is that electric cars are a new thing. And new things provoke anxiety. The danger of internal-combustion engines is something we’ve lived with for over 100 years. We’ve seen Indy 500 race cars explode in flames; we’ve witnessed countless cars blow up in movies; and many of us witnessed a burning vehicle on the road. Experience is our guide, and experience can be far more powerful, with justification, than reason.
We should pay more attention to gas-vehicle fires – but there are way too many of them
Every single automaker on Earth builds and sells vehicles that can and do catch fire. But Tesla gets most of the attention when its vehicles catch fire.
Yes, this is partly driven by the incidents where Tesla cars have ignited without any apparent reason. But it’s also because of the media’s tendency to report news on anything and everything, good and bad, about the carmaker.
CEO Elon Musk points this out all the time. He argues that journalists should cover vehicles that aren’t Teslas when they catch fire, under whatever circumstances, because there are so many more gas-powered car fires annually.
OK, point taken. But that would be quite difficult. Why? Because according to 2018 data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 171,500 “highway vehicles” of various types caught fire in the US alone between 2014-2016. One in eight fires that fire departments respond to is a vehicle fire, FEMA reported.
That’s 157 vehicle fires per day. You’d need some pretty diligent robot journalists to keep track of that much carnage. (As for EV fires, Business Insider counted 20 Tesla fires since 2013, while Chevy dealt with at least one fire in its Volt hybrid-electric vehicle in 2011 by recalling the car. Other automakers have seen a small number of fires since EVs began to hit to road in appreciable numbers since 2010, with Fisker Automotive losing 16 stored vehicles that were flooded by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.)
I’m not going to entirely let Tesla off the hook here. As the company builds and sells more cars, it’s possible that its fire stats will become significant, at which point the design of its batteries might be legitimately questioned.
But you know who’ll do that? Engineers. And they might still conclude that EVs are comparatively safer than what we’ve been driving our kids around in for more than 100 years.
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