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Unsafe At Any Speed? Electric Cars Keep Catching Fire

In Vancouver, Canada, in late May, a Tesla Model Y burst into flames while the driver was waiting for a light at an intersection. He had to kick out a window to escape.

Around the same time, a new Tesla burst into flames in Brooklyn, Illinois, and a week before that a Model 3 caught fire in California City, California, while it was parked in a driveway.

In April, a deadly lithium-ion battery fire occurred in a Tesla car crash in Houston.

Last year, a Tesla caught fire while charging overnight in a garage, which the Washington Post described as “one in a string of recent examples showing what can happen when electric cars are left parked in garages to charge overnight” and which promoted electric vehicle (EV) makers to warn “owners not to leave the cars charging unattended in certain circumstances, or sitting fully charged in garages.” (This site keeps tabs on Tesla fires.)

Tesla recently ordered a recall of almost 130,000 cars because of an “infotainment” system issue that threatened to overheat during “fast charging.”

We’re not trying to single Tesla out here. It isn’t the only one having problems with its lithium-ion batteries.

A March 31 house fire in Damascus, Maryland, caused by a charging Chevy Volt resulted in $350,000 worth of damages.

Last August, GM recalled all the 110,000 Chevrolet Bolt cars it had sold “due to the risk of the high-voltage battery pack catching fire” and warned owners to park their cars away from buildings and other cars. As of April, GM had replaced the batteries on only about a quarter of the recalled cars.

Chevrolet recalled about 110,000 of its Volt EV model years 2017 to 2022 for potential battery fire issues.

In France last month, two electric buses spontaneously exploded, resulting in all 149 electric buses being pulled from service. Watch the video below.


Electric scooters in India have been catching fire, and let’s not forget about the Samsung Galaxy 7 phone that had to be recalled after its lithium-ion battery started catching fire.

Shippers are increasingly wary, too. Japan’s Mitsui OSK Lines is the latest to say it won’t transport used EVs on its cargo vessels.

But don’t worry, we’re told. Electric vehicles result in far fewer fires than their gas-powered cousins.

From 2012 to 2021, Tesla reports that there was roughly one Tesla vehicle fire for every 210 million miles driven, which compares to one fire per 19 million miles driven for all vehicles.

“The difference between Tesla and the average is 11:1, which is a big win not only for Tesla but in general, for electric cars,” writes Mark Kane in InsideEVs.

But that’s an apples and oranges comparison. The one-fire-per-19-million-miles-driven statistic includes all vehicles, buses, trucks, and cars.

What’s more, less than half of car fires involved mechanical failure, while one in five resulted from “electrical failure or malfunction” — a risk likely shared with EVs. Others involved crashes, arson, design flaws, smoking, etc.

But the biggest caveat is that the age of cars on the road is a huge factor when it comes to fires. The National Fire Protection Association reports that 77% of vehicle fires in 2017 that resulted from mechanical or electrical failures “involved cars with model years of 2007 or earlier.” In other words, cars that were more than 10 years old. The first Tesla didn’t roll off the assembly line until 2008.

The latest NFPA report also cautions that “while hybrid and electric vehicles have become more common, existing data collection systems have not yet adequately captured the frequency of fires involving these specific vehicles.”

The bottom line is that we don’t really know how risky electric cars are.

Nor do we know what will happen once today’s electric cars start to age, and their batteries suffer years of wear and tear. And getting information won’t be easy, since there is so much pressure from government and environmentalists to get people into EVs that they won’t want to report anything that might discourage sales.

But there is reason to worry, especially since fires involving lithium-ion batteries are notoriously difficult to put out. And there is definitely reason to be wary of government efforts to force this technology onto the masses.

Ralph Nader made his name in the 1960s by calling the Corvair “unsafe at any speed.” (Turns out Nader was wrong about the Corvair.) Given EVs’ propensity to burst into flame while sitting around, perhaps that label better suits them.

— Written by the I&I Editorial Board

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I & I Editorial Board

The Issues and Insights Editorial Board has decades of experience in journalism, commentary and public policy.

9 comments

  • “Good” Another story payed for by the friends of Big Oil and the Big Three. Mostly false, mostly biased, and too cleverly written. One Point, “EV fires are hard to put out”. Did he never hear of fire extinguishers just for electric fires? Nope, the story convinces no one who can still think. I own an EV and I am still here, my neighbor has the First of the Leaf EV, and it is still not on fire.

  • And yet people buy Tesla Powerwalls composed of batteries no longer serviceable for automotive use and put them in their houses as part of their solar power system…
    I wonder what the reaction of their insurance companies will be when the whole lot goes up in smoke…
    You couldn’t make it up!

  • hi:
    Good stuff, but there is another angle to this that you may wish to explore. Specifically, some (many?) insurance actuaries in both Canada and the United States are, I believe, pushing their companies to raise rates for people who house battery powered vehicles in their home garages -and governments (at least in Canada, I don’t know the U.S, situation) are leaning hard on them not to do so.

    As a result people with IC powered vehicles are paying more for home insurance than can be risk justified while those with electrics are paying less than they should.

  • It’s called thermal runaway, the battery starts to overheat and doesn’t stop. Lithium batteries are notorious for this.

  • Charles . . . the difference between you and the guy in North Vancouver is not huge . . . you could burst into flames tomorrow!

    Comparing New EVs to 15 yo IC vehicles is kind of shakey.

    How do you feel about the Fact that when I buy a New ICV similar to a New Tesla I can drive it for almost 70,000 Miles before we have the SAME Karbon Footprint?

  • The bus fire was fully involved with terrifying speed. It appeared that everyone around was taking it in stride … how French.

  • I am convinced that the ongoing destruction of the dollar is a deliberate, well thought out policy. It destroys savings above all other things — and what would be more congenial to an administration that wants as many persons utterly dependent on the State as possible?

    “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity,” said someone or other. But sometimes malice is the correct explanation. I believe it is in this case.

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Issues & Insights is run by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 




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