All cars can be dangerous machines. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that cars kill an estimated 30,000 people annually. The roadways are already crowded with gasoline-powered cars, and with new incentives to go and buy green, the increase of electric vehicle (EV) owners is an eventuality.
Even though vehicles must uphold safety standards, and every year, new inventions and technological refinements make both gas-powered cars and electric cars safer. But both also come with dangers.
With gas-powered cars, the troubles have been documented through recalls, and with a full gas tank, drivers are essentially cruising around in a Molotov cocktail. But even though fires do occur, cars with exploding gas tanks are not a common issue.
Electric cars are heavier than most cars, and they have a lower center of gravity. These factors improve the vehicle’s stability. But EVs can crash just like any other car, and because just like cellphones, electric cars use lithium-ion batteries which have their own history of problems. These batteries can explode and burn for a long time. Because of their volatility, these incidents tend to grab more headlines than other safety issues. The Explosiveness Nature of Lithium-Ion Batteries
There are no shortages of recalls in gasoline-powered vehicles. In the last 20 years, there has been a list of infamous recalls. A few of these include:
- Ford’s Bridgestone-Firestone Tires causing rollovers
- Toyota and Lexus’ gas pedals causing unintended acceleration
- Ford’s cruise control switches causing fires
- General Motors’ ignition switch disabling safety systems
- Toyota’s window switches short-circuiting and catching fire
- Honda’s faulty Takata airbags
- Volkswagen’s defeat devices, which did not comply with emissions requirements
Lithium-ion batteries have a high energy density, packing large volumes of energy into small batteries. For years, these batteries have been used in cellphones and laptops, and they have a bad reputation for catching on fire.
Regardless, they have become the go-to batteries for EVs because of their size and the electrical output an array of batteries can provide. Some cars can contain a battery compartment with up to 7,000 batteries.
Because of the battery’s volatility, electric car makers create safety protocols and install circuit breakers, sensors, and fuses to disconnect batteries during a collision as a precaution. Battery packs are kept cool by circulating coolant, keeping the temperature low to prevent heat from causing an explosion.
To keep the batteries safe, carmakers like Volvo have gone as far as relocating them away from crumple zones, which are areas of a vehicle designed to crumple in a collision and absorb the impact to minimize the damage to the interior cabin.
But as EVs become more prevalent, first responders like firefighters have sounded the alarm on the potential dangers of the batteries. Battery packs can reach 4,900 degrees Fahrenheit, so a fire can be catastrophic. It can take four or five hours and as much as 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish a burning battery. That is about the same amount of water that is used to fight a building fire. And the batteries can repeatedly reignite, even weeks later.
The Electric Vehicle Inferno
A Tesla Model S sat in the corner of a junkyard. It had been involved in a collision three weeks earlier. Without any provocation, the Tesla began to burn. The blaze splashed in the cracks of the electric car’s hood, and in a snap, it was engulfed in flames.
Firefighters arrived and fought the 3,000-degree fire, momentarily extinguishing it, but the lithium-ion battery pack began to burn again. The firefighters poured thousands of pounds of water onto the flames, but as more stored energy was released, it continued to reignite. They flipped the car on its side to smother the battery’s residual heat and drenched it again. It still burned.
After more than an hour and about 4,500 gallons of water, they dug a pit with a tractor, pushed the car inside, and filled the pit with water. It took the battery compartment becoming totally submerged to quell the fire. The car was an unrecognizable mess of melted metal.
In 2020, a Tesla was charging in the garage of a private home when it caught fire. The flames spread and ignited a second Tesla. The two electric cars burned the garage down around them. It took more than six firetrucks to control the inferno.
The driver of another Tesla Model S pulled over to the side of the road when he heard the car making odd noises. Flames shot from the battery pack like a flamethrower.
In 2021, a Tesla swerved, left the road, and crashed head-on into a tree. The car burst into flames, and burned for four hours, taking thousands of gallons of water to put out. Both passengers died.
The lithium-ion battery issue has caused electric car manufacturers to recall thousands of vehicles. Along with Tesla models, other carmakers recalled some electric models, including:
- General Motors
Sizing Up the Safety of Electric vs. Gas
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conducted two independent studies to compare the safety advantages and disadvantages of gas-powered cars to EVs. Various safety fields were evaluated by the IIHS, including:
- Collision avoidance
- Front-crash protection
- Front impacts
- Roof strength
The electric models performed just as well as the comparable gas-powered models in the tests. The EVs even earned key safety awards.
Data from the Highway Loss Data Institute affirms the IIHS findings with collisions in EVs resulting in less injury claims. Gas-powered cars had 40% more injury claims. The research shows that the added weight attributed to the batteries often absorbs much of the collision’s force.
The automatic crash protection features also help reduce injuries, and if used properly, the advanced driving assistance features help avoid crashes.
The IIHS also addressed consumer concerns over the dangers of EVs lithium-ion batteries exploding. The IIHS reported the danger to passengers does not come from the batteries exploding during the collision but rather in rescue attempts in the case of trapped drivers.
There are new precautionary measures currently being included in emergency responders’ training to prevent battery discharge that could cause injuries to crash victims and responders.
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