Are electric cars safe?

Illustration for article titled Are electric cars safe?

After a Chevy Volt caught fire in a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) junkyard three weeks after it was crash tested, the agency's now investigating the safety of Lithium-Ion batteries in all electric cars. Is an environmentally-safe vehicle safe for your family? In a word, yes.


While new technology easily captures headlines, safety is a relative concept. The vehicle you currently use to ferry your brats to soccer practice and back is likely powered by a highly-combustible, cancer-causing liquid stored in a thin plastic or metal tank just a few inches below or behind your children's seats. The alloys used in various components of that car contain lead, and you'll find kill-you-quickly acid just under the hood.

One of the most popular family vehicles ever, the old jellybean Dodge Voyager/Chrysler Town & Country was rated one of the least-safe vehicles ever tested by Euro NCAP, yet millions of families still obliviously cruise down the highway in one. Speaking of the highway, since when was a large number of 4,000-lb. metal boxes driving at each other at high speeds, piloted by amateurs with virtually no training, considered safe? Throw in some batteries that may catch fire three weeks after being crash tested and left outside in the elements into the mix and the safety needle doesn't really budge.

The NHTSA actually agrees, stating,

"based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, all vehicles — both electric and gasoline-powered — have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash. As manufacturers continue to develop vehicles of any kind — electric, gasoline, or diesel — it is critical that they take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of drivers and first responders both during and after a crash."

But, the NHTSA's Volt fire and a few isolated cases of electric vehicles combusting after home charging mishaps is going to create media headlines. Fox will probably blame it on President Obama, President Obama will probably blame it on American business, and Rick Perry will forget what vehicle it was that caught on fire in his next debate.

Sources even suggest that Anderson Cooper plans to wear a tight black t-shirt while standing in front of a Volt in a soon-to-be-televised hour-long special on CNN called "Anderson Cooper: The Solution To Car Fires."


"We've developed very stringent safety protocols on the disposal and safe handling of the battery packs on the Chevy Volt," GM spokesperson Greg Martin tells Jalopnik. "Those obviously were not followed in this case. GM also has also been unable to replicate the incident."

Martin also commented on the case of a Chevy Volt that caught fire in a Connecticut garage while parked next to another, homemade, electric vehicle. Stating, ""The Volt didn't cause the Connecticut fire."


The NHTSA backs Martin up. "Let us be clear: NHTSA does not believe electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than other vehicles," an agency spokesperson told us in a statement provided to Jalopnik. "In fact, all vehicles — both electric and gasoline-powered — have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash. They also went on to say:

"NHTSA has concluded that the crash test damaged the Volt's lithium ion battery and that the damage led to a vehicle fire that took several weeks to develop after the test was completed. That incident-which occurred at the test facility and caused property damage but no injuries-remains the only case of a battery-related fire in a crash or crash test of vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries, despite a number of other rigorous crash tests of the Chevy Volt separately conducted by both NHTSA and General Motors."


So, according to both GM and NHTSA, lithium-ion batteries are safe, but there's a small chance they could be unsafe if they're damaged. Why would a battery become less safe after getting banged up in a crash?

"When a lithium polymer pack comprised of many individual lithium polymer cells is damaged or deformed, the cells can make contact with each other and make an electrical short," explains a Jalopnik tipster familiar with R/C batteries. "As we know, where there is an electrical short an electrical fire is close to follow and the lithium gel is the source of the fuel."


This isn't a problem affecting only electric cars either. Remember the great laptop battery scare of 2006? Dell and Apple were forced to recall millions of laptop batteries after a few overheated and caught fire. Does the Macbook you're cradling in your lap right now scare you? If you're scared of this Volt fire, then that laptop should scare you even more — and not just because it might be sterilizing you from the heat.

Fires aren't the exclusive preserve of electrically-powered vehicles either. Ford's largest-ever recall — 14 million vehicles — was prompted by the need to replace a fire-causing cruise control switch on gas-powered SUVs and vans like the Explorer, Windstar, Ranger, Excursion and Econoline.


We think it's safe to say that little Johnny is as safe in the backseat of a Volt as he is in pretty much any other car. And safer in it than he would be in any older internal combustion vehicle dating from before the advent of the dozens of airbags, computer-modeled safety cages, antilock brakes, stability control and other safety innovations new vehicles currently enjoy.


The NHTSA is issuing the following precautions to take in the event of a crash involving an electric vehicle:

• Consumers are advised to take the same actions they would in a crash involving a gasoline-powered vehicle-exit the vehicle safely or await the assistance of an emergency responder if they are unable to get out on their own, move a safe distance away from the vehicle, and notify the authorities of the crash.
• Emergency responders should check a vehicle for markings or other indications that it is electric-powered. If it is, they should exercise caution, per published guidelines, to avoid any possible electrical shock and should disconnect the battery from the vehicle circuits if possible.
• Emergency responders should also use copious amounts of water if fire is present or suspected and keeping in mind that fire can occur for a considerable period after a crash should proceed accordingly.
• Operators of tow trucks and vehicle storage facilities should ensure the damaged vehicle is kept in an open area instead of a garage or other enclosed building.
• Rather than attempt to discharge a propulsion battery, an emergency responder, tow truck operator, or storage facility should contact experts at the vehicle's manufacturer on that subject.
• Vehicle owners should not store a severely damaged vehicle in a garage or near other vehicles.


For starters, that line about "Emergency responders should also use copious amounts of water if fire is present or suspected..."? NHTSA might want to check that one out. I'm not sure that's the correct instruction for an electric car fire.

But more to our point, let's note those last two lines — because that is precisely what NHTSA did with their Chevy Volt. They left it sitting around next to other vehicles for three weeks rather than allow the battery pack to be immediately disposed of. I wouldn't let a badly-damaged vehicle with a tankfull of gas sit around in my parking lot, and NHTSA probably shouldn't have done basically the same thing with an electric car.


So, are electric cars safe? Yes, as safe as any car.


Matt Brown

Further reading on the safety of Lithium Ion batteries in vehicles: []