ABC News—helmed by Brian Ross, who has an incredibly weak track record when it comes to covering cars—has a big new investigation out about how a few dozen BMW vehicles have randomly burst into flames while parked and turned off. Strange? Sure. Too bad it’s more of a non-story than anything.
Led by Ross—whom, you might recall, was behind a discredited, staged video purporting to demonstrate unintended Toyota acceleration, among other unsavory journalistic mishaps—ABC and a team of affiliates set out to understand why dozens of luxury BMWs caught fire “even though owners reported they had parked their cars and turned them off.”
Here’s the set-up for one such unlucky owner, Bill Macko:
On the night of Dec. 1, 2015, however, Macko says his 2008 BMW X5 suddenly and inexplicably caught fire as it sat parked in his garage in Olney, Maryland. Macko’s wife had just returned from a short drive, parked the car and turned it off. She entered the house and told Macko she noticed a strange smell in the car, and when Macko walked into the garage to check it out, he arrived just in time to hear a “snap, crackle, pop” and see the car burst into flames.
Macko and his wife ran from the house as the fire engulfed the garage and spread throughout both the lower and upper floors. Dozens of firefighters arrived to battle the blaze, and the Mackos watched, from a neighbor’s yard, as their home burned to the ground.
“You cannot do a thing,” Macko said. “That’s the sad part about it.”
Sure is sad! But the unexplained fire is delivered by ABC with little context.
For instance, we’re told that ABC’s investigation uncovered “more than 40 fires occurring in parked cars across the country in the last five years involving vehicles that did not have open recalls for fire-related issues.”
What kind of BMWs? What model year? Same trim? What’s the rate like for other manufacturers? We’re left in the dark.
What’s clear is, the incidents involve various BMW cars produced over several years—there’s a mention of a “2003 BMW” bursting into flames in an area just outside New York City. In Los Angeles, a parked “2011 BMW” caught fire, but it spared a Darth Vader costume inside (a fun, colorful item that leads to a long, unnecessary aside).
Also, the story’s missing any kind of real, smoking (sorry) gun reason these fires are happening. Do you know what other cars catch fire? Those from Ferrari, Honda, Toyota, Tesla and others. Why single out BMW?
The story goes on to paint BMW as a careless manufacturer; when owners approached the automaker, the story says, they were given the “cold shoulder.”
BMW says it has nothing to apologize for. In a written statement, BMW said that with almost five million BMW vehicles on U.S. roads, such fire incidents are rare, and based on its investigation, “we have not seen any pattern related to quality or component failure. Vehicle fires can result from a wide variety of external reasons unrelated to product defect.”
A spokesperson suggested several other potential causes of car fires other than a manufacturing defect, including a lack of maintenance, improper maintenance by unauthorized mechanics, aftermarket modifications, rodent nesting and even arson.
If I had to guess what sparked this story, maybe it was this recall BMW issued last year for a single BMW X3 xDrive 28i, because an “increase in pin contact resistance” on the vehicles electronic power steering could “increase the risk of a fire, even while the vehicle is parked and ignition is off.”
Maybe this is it? But one vehicle? A 2017 model? Again, the context as to what vehicles ABC reviewed might help illustrate the extent of whether there’s a serious problem at hand.
But a more plausible explanation of what’s going on is buried deep into the ABC story in the next paragraph:
According to auto safety expert Sean Kane, the founder and president of Safety Research & Strategies, the risk of car fires is not an uncommon problem, but they usually occur in cars that are in operation. The mystery of car fires that start after the engine has been turned off, Kane says, may stem from the fact that modern vehicles are never fully powered down.
“A lot of the power to these electronic systems is going to remain on in the vehicle even when the vehicle’s off,” Kane told ABC News. “And once the electrical system starts going, you’ve got plenty of combustibles under the hood.”
ABC says it turned its findings over to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but the regulator said it hasn’t found any example of a safety defect being the cause of the fires. (Still, if you experience a problem, the regulator’s encourages vehicles owners to report potential safety issues.)
Between Takata’s airbag scandal and VW’s elaborate Dieselgate cover-up, there’s plenty of reasons to be skeptical of automakers. But I’m just not seeing anything unseemly about BMW’s response.
Forty random vehicles, over the last five years, and it’s not even clear if they’re some of the same models?