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.

8 responses

  1. There is a slight difference between a car fire after a high speed collision that occurs on the freeway and a spontaneous car fire, in your garage, potentially in the middle of the night above or near your bedroom, without warning. While the relative risks for fires after collision may be comparable or even lower for EVs, Camrys are not known to spontaneously catch fire. This certainly sounds like an issue worth addressing, otherwise, owners should be advised to park in big open lots. I don’t think this is a reason to abandon EVs, just something that needs to be addressed quickly in the current generation of Volts.

    1. You are forgetting that the car in question had been in a serious collision prior to storage in the facility garage. the batteries had sustained significant damage. I doubt most home owners would have parked their Volts in their own garage after a significant collision

  2. Volts and other modern EVs are also not known two spontaneously catch fire. There were two volts that happen to be parked in garages where a fire broke out for other reasons, and one crash test car where the NHTSA did not follow proper post crash safety standards

  3. Of course if you actually read the situation for the volt, you probably wouldn’t be parking your volt that sustained a side impact sufficient to damage the battery which is in the center of the vehicle and then rolled over (in order to distribute the leaking coolant) in your garage. But I guess this is the point of the article, the public is pretty bad with details.

  4. I have a Prius. These have been sold since the 1990’s in Japan and since 2000 in the USA in large numbers. There are twice as many Nissan Leaf’s on the road as Volts. Tesla went to extreme steps to segregate its battery into small separate and indestructable battery boxes, just because of fire and accident danger. I have not heard of any fires in the Prius, Leaf, or Tesla, spontaneous or otherwise. Some lithium ion chemistries are better than others for spontaneous combustion. Iron phosphate lithiums are more stable than cobalt lithiums, for example. I love GM cars and trucks but I suspect that their engineers made some bad choices or incomplete designs, and it wouldn’t be the first time for GM.

  5. Out of a large number of “Volt fire” articles which I have read this is about the only ration one in the batch.

    Yes, damage an EV battery and it might catch on fire. Rupture a gas tank and flammable liquid flows around the wreck in a big puddle just waiting to go Whoosh!!!

    (I’ve been in one of those ruptured gas tank, vehicle bursting into flames wrecks. It’s damned scary, even if it doesn’t kill you.)

    What can we say about EV batteries? I suppose we have to say that while they might be safer than a tank of gasoline, they are not absolutely safe.

    What can we say about journalism? In general (present company excepted) it stinks. It’s like Murdock has fouled almost the entire profession.

  6. I really agree with you because this certainly sound like a issue worth addressing, owners should be advised to park in big open parking lots. I even don’t think this is a reason to abandon EVs, just something that needs to be addressed quickly in the current generation of Volts.

  7. Well reasoned article and replies….I wonder if the NHSTA performed the same side impact tests they did on the Volt on a gasoline powered car, if the gas tank would maintain its integrity….I doubt it. The stats on gasoline fires are instructive here and sobering. I agree that possible design issues should be investigated, but the electric cars should not be held to a double standard.

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