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EV fire risk: Are electric vehicles more likely to catch fire than petrol and diesel vehicles?

EV fire, image credit: Dominik Sostmann on Unsplash


The topic of EV fires has garnered significant attention on various media platforms in the UK. The recent car fire at the Luton Airport car park in October 2023 has sparked discussions and raised concerns about the fire risks associated with electric vehicles (EVs). Some claims suggest that EVs pose a greater risk of catching fire compared to ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles.

In this blog, we will explore whether there is any truth to these claims. Is the likelihood of EVs catching fire greater compared to traditional petrol or diesel cars and vans?

Electric car fire at Luton Airport

Claims circulating on social media platforms like Facebook and X (previously known as Twitter) have alleged that the car fire at Luton Airport’s multi-storey car park was initiated by an electric or hybrid vehicle.

However, this statement was incorrect. In an interview with the media, Andrew Hopkinson, the chief firefighter at Bedfordshire Fire Service, clarified the nature of the Luton Airport car park fire: “We have no intelligence at this stage to suggest that this was anything other than an accidental fire that started in one of the vehicles that had not long arrived at the airport. It was not an EV. This was a diesel powered vehicle.”

Subsequent investigations have established that the car set on fire was a diesel Range Rover.

How does the electric vehicle catch fire?

EV battery fires typically arise from faults or accidents, rather than as a direct result of official crash tests. It is important to note that electric vehicles (EVs) undergo extensive development processes and are subject to recalls as necessary.

On the other hand, electric scooter fires are more common. This is mainly because they’re illegal in the UK and therefore mostly uncertified. In a report published by Electrical Safety First, it is noted that there are growing safety concerns regarding electric bikes (e-bikes) and e-scooters. Alarmingly, within the first three months of 2023, fires resulting from lithium-ion batteries used in such devices have led to four fatalities, numerous hospitalisations and severe injuries, as well as extensive property damage in the UK.

In the electric vehicle, the energy is stored by moving lithium ions within battery cells. However, lithium-ion batteries may suffer thermal runaway. This phenomenon is triggered when the battery overheats, leading to an increase in the chemical reaction that powers the battery. Consequently, this produces more heat, which fuels further chemical reactions. As a result, a destructive cycle occurs, with escalating heat and the release of toxic and flammable gases. In extreme cases, this can lead to combustion. The EV fires often involve complex and dramatic elements. These might include vapour clouds, hissing noises, and highly directional jets, followed, possibly, by an explosion.

To reduce these fire risks, lithium-ion battery packs contain fail-safe circuitry. Its role is to shut down the battery when its voltage is outside the safe range.

EVs vs ICE vehicles: Fire risk according to UK statistics

With the increasing number of electric cars and LCVs on the roads worldwide, there has been some scattered data on the occurrence of fires. Consequently, this has raised concerns about the safety of electric vehicles. However, based on the available data, there is no justification for believing that the risk of fire in an EV is higher than in any other vehicle. In fact, the opposite seems to be true.

According to recent research, the probability of an EV catching a fire is generally less than that of an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle. 

Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions concluded that there were 239 recorded EV-related fires in the UK from July 2022 to June 2023. Although this represents an 83% increase compared to the previous year, it is crucial to recognise that this rise corresponds with the growing presence of electric vans and electric cars on our roads. In contrast, according to the Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, there were 1,898 fires caused by petrol and diesel vehicles in 2019. Meanwhile, there were only 54 fires involving electric vehicles.

Data from other counties

According to the directorate for social security and emergency preparedness in Norway, which has the highest proportion of electric car sales globally, there are between four to five times more fires in petrol and diesel cars compared to electric cars.

Furthermore, a study conducted by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency in 2022, determined that petrol and diesel cars and vans were nineteen times more likely to catch fire compared to their electric counterparts.

EV FireSafe, funded by Australia’s Department of Defence, investigated the issue as well. They found that there is a 0.0012 % chance of a passenger electric vehicle battery catching fire. In contrast, the chance of an internal combustion engine vehicle setting on fire is 0.1%.

Tesla, led by Elon Musk and the largest producer of electric cars globally, stated that the number of fires involving Teslas on US roads from 2012 to 2021 was 11 times lower per mile compared to the average for all cars, the majority of which run on petrol or diesel engines.

Electric car on fire

Photo by Adrian Balasoiu on Unsplash

Flammable fuels

Now that we recognise that electric vehicles are less prone to catching fire in comparison to traditional internal combustion engine vehicles, let’s explore the causes of the fire in fossil-fueled vehicles.

ICE vehicles have various flammable components or substances that can potentially contribute to fires. Unlike petrol and diesel cars, which depend on highly flammable fuels, EVs operate without them. Therefore, electric vehicles don’t carry such risks.

Furthermore, petrol and diesel vehicles generate heat from their engines. There is also a potential fire hazard when fluids, like brake fluid, leak into a hot exhaust system. In contrast, EVs are not susceptible to this risk as they do not have exhaust pipes.

Overall, EVs present a reduced fire risk due to the absence of flammable fuels. They also eliminate potential fire-causing factors related to heat and fluid leaks.

Why is the EV fire so difficult to extinguish? 

Extinguishing an electric vehicle fire is significantly more difficult than putting out a fire in an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. This is due to the unique way in which a lithium-ion battery burns compared to traditional fuel. Additionally, there are additional hazards to consider, such as toxic vapour clouds, sparks, and highly focused streams of flame. Therefore, fire departments necessitate a different firefighting approach to EV fire safety.

Fires in EVs fire typically require a larger amount of water to put out.  Moreover, the fire can reignite hours, days or even weeks later due to stored energy within the battery.

Fire crews worldwide are exploring innovative methods. One of them is fully submerging burned electric vans and cars in the water. The purpose of this is to eliminate the dangers related to post-fire incidents such as reignition. It is important to note that lithium ion batteries used in plug-in vehicles cannot be immersed in seawater. This is due to the potential release of chlorine gas.

What should you do when your EV catches fire?

In the unfortunate event that your electric van or car catches fire, you must prioritise your safety. Move to a safe location and immediately request emergency services by dialling 999. Also, it’s important not to attempt to extinguish the fire yourself. Not only it’s dangerous, but also very unlikely to be effective.

Are electric vehicles safe despite the fire risk? 

The concerns regarding fires in electric cars and vans may be alarming. However, Paul Christensen, a professor of pure and applied electrochemistry at Newcastle University and senior advisor to the National Fire Chiefs Council, aims to alleviate these fears. He emphasises that the benefits of EV technology should not be overshadowed by these concerns. “As someone who assisted Nissan during the creation of its battery plant, I would, if I could afford one, have a Nissan Leaf tomorrow,” he says.

“We don’t need to be worried about the small incidence of fires involving electric vehicles but we do need to be aware.” he adds. Christensen advocates for councils and other organisations to adopt more rigid safety measures. Specifically, he calls for prioritising the evaluation of EV safety risks in underground car parks and bus depots, where vehicles are parked in close proximity to each other. This is because battery flame possesses the characteristics of a blowtorch, capable of swiftly igniting anything surrounding the vehicle. 

Safety first

Danish ferry operator DFDS is actively implementing safety measures to minimise the impact of electric vehicle fires and prioritise the safety of passengers and crew. The company has already taken action. Its vessels are all equipped with firefighting equipment designed specifically for electric vehicles. This includes the installation of special fire blankets and cooling units to effectively address any potential fires involving EVs on board.

To address the issue at its root, some ferry companies have taken even more extreme measures. Norwegian ferry operator Havila Kystruten has implemented a complete ban on electric vehicles. The company is concerned about the potential risks the batteries pose, and the severity of consequences resulting from EV fires.

The verdict

Overall, the available data proves that although battery fires in electric vehicles can be more dangerous once ignited, the perception of EVs spontaneously combusting is exaggerated. In fact, EVs are actually less likely to catch fire compared to traditional vehicles. This is thanks to their advanced safety features and battery management systems. So, if you’ve been concerned about the safety of EVs, rest assured that they undergo rigorous testing to ensure their reliability.

However, it is crucial to acknowledge that this situation could change as more individuals and businesses get electric vehicles. Auto Trader data shows a high satisfaction rate of approximately 90% among EV owners. This means we can anticipate an increasing interest in transitioning to electric vehicles. Consequently, there will be more EVs on our roads in the coming years. Furthermore, as the average age of EV battery usage increases, there is a possibility that the incidence of fires in EVs may rise.

Interestingly, while EV sales are increasing year-on-year, only a small proportion of new models registered in 2023 were purchased by private individuals. The majority of customers purchasing and leasing electric vehicles are fleet customers. This is because businesses benefit from favourable tax incentives for choosing electric vans and EV company cars. The cost advantages of EVs also contribute to their popularity. On average, servicing an EV is 65% cheaper than a diesel vehicle, and costs 37% less than a petrol vehicle. These factors make electric vans an attractive choice for many.

If you’re still uncertain about choosing between a diesel or electric van, our friendly team is here to help! Contact us on 01424 863 456 for a chat.

 

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