Electric vehicles are designed as the safest car models in the world. They incorporate the latest technology and have impeccable features that ensure a safe driving experience at all times. However, like all products, EVs are susceptible to design flaws that may lead to catastrophic outcomes.
Recently, there have been alarming reports of EVs catching fire and exploding in severe circumstances. This may be confusing for most people since automobiles do not operate on gasoline, which is flammable and may be a probable cause of vehicles catching fire.
However, there is a reasonable explanation for the occurrence. In rare circumstances, the lithium-ion batteries EVs operate on may have design flaws, causing them to overheat and start a fire or explode.
While this could happen to anyone, you don’t have to worry about your safety if your car is well-maintained and has passed the necessary safety checks. You can comfortably drive around without worrying about your vehicle randomly bursting into flames. Here’s a detailed review of why EVs catch fire or explode.
Common Causes of EVs Catching Fire
Although it is a rare occurrence, you may have heard the news or witnessed an EV catching fire, sparking curiosity about what causes the hazard. Well, the flames are not a random occurrence. There are logical reasons for the fires, including the following.
1. Manufacturing Defects
Manufacturing defects are the top reason why EVs catch fire and explode. While EV manufacturing companies take necessary precautions to ensure they assemble their vehicles per the requisite standards and test the resulting product’s safety, the systems are not 100% foolproof.
Like any other manufacturing industry, the process is subject to mishaps that may lead to defective vehicles making their way to the market. The occurrence is especially prevalent as numerous companies join the EV manufacturing industry.
As the companies seek to boost production to beat their competition in the market, they may use substandard parts and rush the process, which increases the risk of manufacturing defects.
It is worth noting that an EV is made up of various internal systems that dictate its operations. While major components such as the battery and motors are essential, other small parts, like the bolts and nuts that patch things together, are equally important. If they are not placed correctly, they could lead to serious problems, including your car bursting into flames.
Unfortunately, the rush in manufacture could lead to some minor components missing in the final product and the release of a defective vehicle. This tremendously heightens the risk of hazards, including fires and explosions.
2. Thermal Runaways
Thermal runaways are another common reason why EVs catch fire. Lithium-ion batteries are generally safe and efficient energy sources for electric vehicles.
Unlike contemporary batteries, they charge at almost 100% efficiency, ensuring you have enough power to travel long distances after plugging your vehicle in. Similarly, they are unlikely to fail if they are in good condition with no inherent defects or damages.
However, in some rare instances, a thermal runaway may occur in lithium-ion batteries, causing a fire. Normally, the batteries produce small amounts of heat as electrons move within them as it operates. A thermal runaway occurs when the battery produces excessive heat that makes its way from the cell.
The unwarranted heat, characterized by extremely high temperatures, meets ejected flammable gas in the battery, sparks a fire, and causes an explosion. In some instances, thermal runway, which is basically your lithium-ion battery overheating, is associated with extreme heat during the summer, although this rarely happens.
Lithium-ion batteries are designed to withstand temperatures of up to 150°C. Thus, most thermal runways occur when lithium-ion batteries are damaged or inherently defective.
3. Mishandling Your EV
It’s not news that you need to handle your car correctly to prevent it from malfunctioning. Electric vehicles are no different if you don’t want to see them randomly burst into flames. As such, it is important to know your EV’s limits and maintenance requirements before operating it. It will save you a lot of trouble.
Failing to service your vehicle regularly could lead to persistent internal faults that may spark a fire. Similarly, if you do not clean your vehicle regularly, grease may build up in various components and presents a significant fire hazard.
Your EV may also catch fire if you handle it roughly and over speed when hitting the break repeatedly. The heat caused by the friction could intensify and cause a fire. Ultimately, drivers should know their vehicles’ limits.
Incidences of EVs Catching Fire
Our review of why EVs catch fire includes notable accidents over the past decade that caught public attention. Although car fires are mostly associated with gas-powered vehicles, EVs also burst into flames occasionally, with the most notable incidents causing considerable destruction. Some of the most notable incidents include:
1. The MS Pearl of Scandinavia Incident
Occurring in November 2010, the incident was one of the first reported cases of fire involving an electric vehicle. It involved a prospective EV ferrying from Oslo to Copenhagen on the MS Pearl of Scandinavia.
The vehicle in question was a Nissan Qashqai which was rebuilt into a battery-operated electric vehicle to attract investors. However, the EV’s journey to the market was thwarted when its extension chord plug short-circuited and caused a fire on the ferry.
Luckily, the sprinklers automatically turned on and put out the fire before it could harm passengers and destroy property. Since the incident, MS Pearl of Scandinavia and other DFDS Seaways banned the charging of EVs on their vessels. Similarly, willing investors in the production of the prospective electric vehicle withdrew their support, and the start-up company soon fell due to a lack of capital.
2. Hurricane Sandy-Related EV Fires
It’s quite unusual to see fires after a storm. However, that was the case when Hurricane Sandy hit in late 2012. During the heavy Atlantic Hurricane, several EVs, including a Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, and more than a dozen Fisker Karmas, burst into flames at New York’s Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal while partially submerged in flash floods.
In the Prius case, the EV that burst into flames passed the fire and damaged two vehicles out of the 4,000 Toyotas on board. After a forensic study, the Toyota Spokeswoman stated that the fire was sparked by saltwater making its way to the vehicle’s electrical systems.
On the other hand, fifteen Fisker Karmas caught fire simultaneously but were not plugged into their respective charging systems. Further investigations by NHTSA representatives revealed that the fire was also caused by salt corrosion in the Vehicle Control Unit of one of the vehicles, which caused a fire in its battery.
The heavy winds associated with Hurricane Sandy spread the fire to the fourteen adjacent vehicles. Luckily, no one in the area was injured.
3. The Tesla Model Y Incident in Vancouver
Tesla is a formidable brand in the EV industry that boasts of designing and producing various state-of-the-art electric car models. The company focuses on producing vehicles. Its latest technology is infused with impeccable design features that ensure driver and passenger safety.
While the vehicle has had a great record over the years with fewer incidences than other EV brands, several Tesla-related fires have been responsible for 44 deaths. One such incident happened when a Tesla Module Y spontaneously caught fire in Vancouver in May 2022.
Although there were no fatalities, the driver was trapped in a flaming vehicle for a while before being rescued. The EV suddenly lost power and burst into flames, forcing the driver to break a window. He barely escaped the battery-induced fire.
Risks Associated With EVs Exploding
The recent cases of EVs exploding are not to be taken lightly. They carry various risks to the vehicles’ owners and manufacturing companies. We review some of the negative implications below.
Reduced Customer Confidence
When you purchase an EV, it is on the basis that the car will serve you well and move you around as you carry out various errands without it compromising your safety. It is safe to say that EV manufacturers design their vehicles with this in mind, as they put up various safety precautions, including AI, to facilitate your travels.
However, with the recorded cases of vehicles exploding, consumers may worry about how safe the cars actually are. The possibility of an EV exploding without warning is a huge safety risk to drivers and their passengers.
Imagine driving around with your family when your car suddenly catches fire and explodes. It is a catastrophe that could lead to serious injuries and fatalities in extreme cases. This fear of the unknown has discouraged some prospective buyers, considering many people have limited knowledge of why EVs catch fire.
Loss of Investment
Cars, including EVs, are a great investment for their buyers. They are a convenient means of transport that moves you around to your meetings and errands and elevates your status in society. For some people in the transportation industry, vehicles are a source of livelihood.
With this in mind, the possibility of your EV exploding after purchase is a risk to your investment. While your registered insurance may cover the loss, you risk losing the money you spent purchasing the vehicle or your source of livelihood if you depend on your EV to put food on the table. Your investment could go down the drain in a matter of seconds.
The possibility of EVs bursting into flames is a huge blow to manufacturing companies, who risk losing prospective clients and accompanying revenue. Apart from using renewable energy, one of the vehicles’ greatest selling points are their safety design features.
However, with the reported cases making rounds, customers may look for an alternative to purchasing EVs. After all, no one wants to risk their lives and those of their loved ones. This could lead to a negative dip in sales, and the EV manufacturers risk losing billions if they do not attend to the matter.
History of Lawsuits Arising from the Incidents
People purchasing electric vehicles are assured of quality automobiles that are guaranteed to serve them well without compromising their safety. While most of the vehicles produced by different companies worked efficiently, a few did not, and ended up harming or risking their operators’ lives due to defects traceable to the manufacturers.
As such, the companies that produced the faulty vehicles were liable for the reported manufacturing defects. Over the years, various victims sought redress through the court system by suing companies affiliated with defective EVs.
One of the major lawsuits was launched in 2020 against Hyundai, where 200 claimants sued the company for releasing defective vehicles. Several EVs affiliated with the company reportedly randomly burst into flames, causing property loss and injuring people in some circumstances.
The joint class action sued the company for $8 million, with each party expected to gain $7,200 from the suit. The payable damages were subject to increment as the case went further.
While Hyundai had a fierce court battle trying to fight accusations brought against it, another big player in the automobile industry, General Motors, was recalling over 50,000 vehicles with equally faulty batteries. GM’s Chevrolet Bolt was at risk of catching fire, with over 140,000 vehicles already distributed in the market. The multibillion-dollar company incurred at least $100 million to recall and replace the faulty batteries.
However, the gesture was not enough to warn of looming court cases. Dozens of aggrieved parties from all over the country whose EVs caught fire launched a suit against the company in Michigan and are awaiting the verdict. These cases have opened the floodgates for several other aggrieved parties to launch cases against the manufacturers of faulty EVs.
EV Manufacturers’ Counter Measures
The inherent defects in EVs that cause some to catch fire and explode threaten their manufacturing companies. Consequently, manufacturers have taken various measures to eradicate the issue and ensure their consumer’s safety.
The main issue leading to fires and explosions in EVs is their faulty lithium-ion batteries which are prone to overheating. As such, EV manufacturers prioritize finding a solution to these existing faults.
Primarily, the manufacturers have resorted to using quality material in the lithium batteries, such as graphite which gives them greater stability. Some companies, such as General Motors, have gone the extra mile to incorporate technology in the batteries that detects whether there is a defect in the components.
Similarly, companies affected by the defect on a large scale have recalled the affected vehicle models. So, if you bought the suspected faulty model, the company requires you to take it back for inspection and modification. The new enhanced version ensures it is fault-free, with a replaced lithium-ion battery and a defect-free system.
Electric vehicles are generally safe to drive and board. However, recent incidents reveal the risk of them exploding and catching fire due to faulty electrical systems and components in the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery. While this risk is minimal and rarely occurs, it could adversely affect EV owners and manufacturers in various ways. As such, EV manufacturers have set up amicable solutions to deal with the issue.
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