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