With President Biden’s executive order calling for 50% of new car sales to be electric by 2030, the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) is set to go mainstream. However, recent EV fires have sparked concerns about the safety of these vehicles. In August 2021, a Tesla Model X caught fire after a collision in Austin, Texas, which took multiple fire engines, tens of thousands of gallons of water, and 45 minutes to extinguish. While EV fires are relatively rare, compared to traditional internal combustion engine fires, they present a new technical and safety challenge for fire departments.
The cause of EV fires can be tied to the high-voltage battery of the vehicle. An electric vehicle battery pack is made up of thousands of small lithium-ion cells, which are assembled into a battery pack that’s encased in strong material like titanium and bolted to the vehicle’s undercarriage. When the battery is defective, damaged, or just internally fails, one or more of the lithium-ion cells can short-circuit and heat up the battery, causing a fire. These fires burn at much higher temperatures and require more water to fight than conventional car fires, which presents a challenge for firefighters who may not have the training and knowledge to combat EV fires.
Misinformation about EV fires has also contributed to the negative perception of EVs. Videos of EV fires tend to go viral and attract comments that condemn President Biden and the electrification movement, while misleading posts about EVs spontaneously exploding or starting fires that can’t be put out with water have further added to the narrative that EVs are less safe than conventional cars. The research, however, doesn’t bear this out. According to two recent Highway Loss Data Institute reports, EVs pose no additional risk for non-crash fires, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) states that EVs are no more dangerous than internal combustion cars from a fire safety perspective.
The rise of EV fires could stand in the way of President Biden’s goal of widespread EV adoption. It is crucial that fire departments are trained to combat EV fires, and that accurate information is spread to dispel the misconceptions surrounding EV safety. The future of EVs depends on the resolution of these challenges, and the success of the electrification movement depends on the perception of EVs as safe and reliable vehicles.