When an electric vehicle catches fire it gets a lot of attention.
The Chevy Bolt fire is getting the most attention because GM has issued a recall globally due to fire risks and it comes in the wake of several Bolt fires.
Both General Motors and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are sending teams to investigate the fire next week, Vermont state Rep. Timothy Briglin, whose Bolt caught fire, told me in a phone interview (see notes* at bottom).
“I’m very concerned that GM get out in front of this and get on top of the safety issues related to these three model years [2017-2019],” Briglin said.
Several GM people have contacted him, Briglin told me.
Briglin added that he is still very committed to EVs.
“I don’t think that there is any question that EVs are the cars of the future. They’re easier to drive, they’re less expensive to drive, they’re better for the climate, this [Bolt] battery issue is going to get figured out,” he said.
For its part, GM issued this statement: “Fortunately, there were no injuries as a result of this incident. We have reached out to the customer and are actively investigating the incident and gathering additional information to understand the specific circumstances.”
EV fires are new news, gas car fires are old news
Electric vehicle fires garner a lot of media attention because:
- EVs are new. And millions of Americans are at least pondering the switch to EVs.
- Tesla is one of the hottest, most closely scrutinized tech companies in the U.S. — plus the star power of CEO Elon Musk.
- It’s not clear (to the public) why EVs catch fire and why the fires are often so hard to put out.
So, a Tesla fire or Chevy Bolt fire or a Hyundai Kona EV fire are going to get more attention than, let’s say, a Toyota Corolla catching fire.
Electric car fires vs gas car fires
The question that invariably comes up is, do EV fires happen at a greater frequency than gas car fires?
Tesla has provided this data:
“From 2012 – 2020, there has been approximately one Tesla vehicle fire for every 205 million miles traveled. By comparison, data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and U.S. Department of Transportation shows that in the United States there is a vehicle fire for every 19 million miles traveled.”
But the National Fire Protection Association is not as definitive and said this in 2020: “While hybrid and electric vehicles have become more common, existing data collection systems have not yet adequately captured the frequency of fires involving these specific vehicles.”
I asked Jason K. Levine, Executive Director of the Washington DC-based Center for Auto Safety, who said that “there’s no comprehensive data source that we are aware of” that compares electric and gas car fires.
“Non-crash fires are always worth investigating no matter how the vehicle is powered,” Levine said. “The concern with battery electric vehicle fires is two-fold: how often are they happening and how prepared are our first responders to react?”
In Briglin’s case, the fire department was prepared. “They knew exactly what to do…[they] had diagrams of the car…where all the issues were,” Briglin said, adding that it was amazing because it was the first time the local fire department faced an EV fire. And even more amazing because White River Junction (where Briglin lives) only has a population of about 2,200 people.
But the bottom line is, there is no hard data — outside of what Tesla provided above — indicating that EVs are any more, or less, fire-prone than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.
Amount of water and time necessary to extinguish an EV fire
A Tesla Model S fire in April required nearly 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish it because “it kept reigniting, burning continuously for over four hours” (Popular Science). By comparison, a typical car fire involving a gas engine can be extinguished with about 300 gallons of water, according to an NBC News report.
And all that water takes time. An EV fire can take hours to put out compared to a gas car fire that can be under control in minutes.
“Unlike gasoline, which can be drained from a vehicle’s tank, there are no surefire methods of removing energy from a car’s lithium-ion battery when the battery has been damaged in a crash. Because of this, energy remains trapped inside the battery and a process known as thermal runaway can occur, in which the battery essentially continuously overheats and over-pressurizes and is prone to fires, arc-flashing, off-gassing, and sometimes explosions.”
—National Fire Protection Agency Journal (April 22, 2021)
*Briglin told me that on June 9th he took his Bolt in for service to get the software fix for the battery. He said it took about an hour for the dealer to complete the fix.
On June 30th, he drove his car home with about a 10% charge left on the battery. Then he plugged the car in around 8 pm and the Bolt’s dash indicated that the charge would be complete around 3:30 am.
He was having breakfast around 6:30 am. Then the following happened:
“I heard this noise in the driveway and looked out the window. It was a very loud hissing sound. I see smoke is coming out of the back of the car and it also filled the cabin of the car. There was no fire at that point. I ran outside and unplugged the car [then] went inside and called the fire department [they were] at my house probably 10 minutes later…Literally, as they pulled in, the back of the car went up in flames. It took about 10 minutes from smoke to flames.”
“To put out one of these fires you have to put a ton of water on it. There’s no special foams or anything like that, you’ve got to get the temperature of the battery down,” Briglin said.
He estimated the fire department was at his house for about three hours but for the last hour and a half they were just “trickling water on it” i.e., after the fire was more or less under control.
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