The Chevrolet Volt Fire in Perspective

It was probably only a matter of time before we saw this story: An electric vehicle’s battery pack catches fire, drawing into question the safety of electric vehicles in general.

Ever since lithium-ion batteries were found to sometimes catch fire in laptops or cell phones, sooner or later we’d most probably see the same thing happening to a car battery – after all, EVs essentially use the same battery chemistry. So, as more electric cars hit the road, the safety concerns of the technology increase. But this is not a piece offering another reason why the world is not ready for EVs, but rather, it’s to shine a little perspective on the subject.


For anyone who’s not been following this story, back in June, as The New York Times reported earlier this month, the National Highway Safety Administration crash tested a Chevrolet Volt as part of a routine vehicle safety evaluation in the event of a collision. Subsequent to the crash, in which a 5 star (highest) rating was given to the Volt in side impact testing, the vehicle caught fire; though the fire broke out 3 weeks later in a storage facility, apparently due to damage the batteries sustained during the test. This had officials rightly concerned about fire safety, especially since the fire started considerably after than the crash test itself.

The New York Times followed up again on the story this week, detailing the current federal investigation, while suggesting this will be a set-back for electric cars in general. Will (or should)  fire concerns put off potential customers?

Indeed, the incident is worthy of investigation, but let’s not kid ourselves that driving around in gasoline powered vehicles is some sort of transportation safe-haven. The question really is, are EVs relatively more fire prone than gasoline powered vehicles? I remember reading a few years ago, that if anyone today came up with the idea of the internal combustion engine, necessitating that vehicles cart around 15 gallons of highly flammable and explosive gasoline – safety officials would probably give the concept a big thumbs-down.

Here are some statistics from the National Fire Protection Association. In 2003-2007, fire departments in the United States responded to an average of 287,000 vehicle fires per year. These fires caused an estimated 480 civilian deaths, 1,525 civilian injuries and $1.3 billion in direct property damage annually. Furthermore, in the same period, highway-type vehicle fires accounted for 17% of reported fires and 12% of U.S. civilian deaths.

Yes, crashing a gasoline powered car is a potentially fiery and deadly business!

To preempt any protestations that one or two vehicles fires suffered by EVs are proportionately higher than the annual average 287,000 fires suffered by gasoline powered ones – this is probably actually incorrect, and in any case is hard to evaluate, since fire statistics are not compared with vehicles sold in the same period. But the point really is that there is an absolute fire risk in the car most people are already driving – and probably especially since they are carrying around highly flammable liquids. The Volt incident simply does not provide statistical significance to assert EVs are relatively more dangerous, so rationally, this should not be a set-back.

Still, it is right that an investigation is being conducted to ensure there is no systemic problem with the vehicle, or its design, and efforts should be made to ensure any weak-spots in the vehicle’s safety systems are determined. It is also wise, as the NYT also reports, that General Motors is offering customers of the Volt a loaner vehicle if they are concerned with the vehicle’s safety while investigations take place. But, as with any news story that involves personal safety, getting the matter into perspective is both important, and sadly, too often overlooked.

Image Credit: mariordo59, Flickr

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.