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Insight – the myths behind electric vehicle fires

Unwarranted fears of electric vehicles catching fire are a major factor dissuading some drivers from switching to them, according to a new survey.
The true picture – the Tesla at left is far less likely to combust than the combustion-engined car at right. Photo: Shutterstock


17 May 2024

Unwarranted fears of electric vehicles catching fire are a major factor dissuading some drivers from switching to them, according to a new survey.

The study by Startline Motor Finance has concluded that following negative coverage of EVs, 43% of potential drivers believe that they catch fire easily.

The finance provider surveyed 303 consumers and 60 dealers for its Used Car Tracker, which is compiled monthly, and the fear of fire was only topped by concerns over the longevity of the vehicle’s batteries, with 52% of respondents wrongly believing that EV batteries only have a short life before failing.

“There has been a wave of inaccurate, sometimes sensationalist coverage about EVs over the last couple of years and our research shows that it is having a damaging effect on public perception,” said Startline Motor Finance CEO Paul Burgess.

“It appears that there are a relatively large number of people who, after seeing, hearing or reading negative coverage, believe that if they buy an EV, it is likely to either burst into flames or become useless after a short period of time due to battery failure. Both of these things are, of course, untrue but are probably having an effect on demand for EVs in both the new and used market.”

Burgess added that as electric cars become more common over time, these myths will no doubt start to fade. “But in the shorter term, more should probably be done by the motor industry as a whole to counter them.”

So what is the truth?

Fears of EV fires have been stoked by negative publicity – pictures of Tesla vehicles ablaze are regularly posted on social media and accepted as a true state of affairs by many viewers who then draw the wrong conclusions over EVs.

When a car park at Luton airport was consumed by fire in October 2023, causing massive disruption to the airport, social media was full of theories most of which immediately put the cause down to an electric car. And the level of suspicion around EVs was confirmed once it was announced that the blaze started in a diesel Land Rover, with authorities being accused of ‘covering up the truth’.

So there is a widely-held assumption that EVs are a fire risk – but the data tells a very different story. Accurate figures for EV fires are hard to establish because Fire Service incident reports often do not distinguish between combustion-engined and electric vehicles, while a further issue clouding the data is that EV fire statistics often include incidents involving e-scooters, which are considered a much greater fire risk than are mainstream electric vehicles.

Analysis, however, of data across English fire services following a request by the BBC suggested that of more than 19,000 call-outs to vehicle fires in 2022-23, only around 100 were thought to involve EVs. Research by a UK safety solutions specialist was able to link only 239 fires between July 2022 and June 2023 to EVs, in a UK car parc that currently numbers around 33 million.

Research in Sweden concluded that EVs were 20 times less likely to catch fire than combustion-engined cars, while in America, where fears of EV blazes have taken root to a much greater level than in the UK, National Transportation Safety Board data indicated that of every 100,000 battery EVs sold, 25 were likely to suffer from fires, whereas for typical petrol or diesel vehicles the rate was more than 1,500 per 100,000.

When one seriously considers the technology involved, the reasons for such a small number of incidents become clearer. Electric cars do not make use of many of the components that in a traditional vehicle are most likely to be the cause of a fire – primarily fuel being pumped from a tank typically at the rear of the car to the engine at the front, and an exhaust system that in use gets hot, leading to ignition if it comes into contact with anything combustable.

BYD’s efforts to demonstrate the safety of its Blade battery packs have included running trucks over them and pushing nails through them.

Fewer causes but more difficulties

The only significant area of an electric car at risk of fire is the battery pack – many users of mobile phones or laptop computers have experienced incidents of heavy use leading to overheating of a battery pack, but all EVs boast highly sophisticated systems to combat this, partly because if a pack does ignite, extinguishing it and keeping it extinguished is more problematic.

If a battery pack is penetrated or suffers a short circuit, this can lead to a phenomenon called thermal runaway, in which the excessive heat causes a chemical reaction which in turn generates more heat, the cycle repeating and increasing in intensity, leading to fire and even in some cases an explosion.

Battery technology is, however, constantly improving and including measures to combat thermal runaway – in many cases lithium-ion batteries are being replaced by much safer lithium-iron phosphate units, used by manufacturers such as BYD which has demonstrated the strength of the packs fitted to its cars by driving nails into them with no ill effects. Solid-state batteries are also under development and these are said to be completely fire-safe.

There does remain one significant issue with EV fires – dealing with them. While such incidents are very rare, emergency services have discovered that extinguishing such a fire and then keeping it extinguished is not a simple task.

Several EV makers advise that fires should be allowed to burn themselves out in a controlled manner, while once the blaze is out there remains a possibility of reignition, sometimes several days later – Fire Service vehicles routinely follow recovery trucks back to their depots following an EV fire incident in case the car re-ignites.

Emergency services have been developing bespoke means of dealing with EV fires – several European Fire services are adopting large containers into which a smouldering EV will be lowered and the container then filled with water, the whole being left for several days to ensure the fire truly is out.

Across the Globe, including in the UK, emergency services have put much investment into learning about the specific demands of EV fires and devising the most effective methods to deal with them.

All this is alongside continual development by manufacturers to make their battery packs safer. Makers are already producing batteries that contain any fire and smoke inside a pack for at least five minutes after first ignition in a bid to battle thermal runaway – anticipating that regulations to this effect already in place in China will be adopted globally.

In Hungary emergency services use this large container in which are placed EVs that have caught fire and immersed in water for several days. Photo: Shutterstock

Fact not fiction

To conclude, successive amounts of hard data has shown conclusively that electric vehicles are by no means the greater fire risk that the current wave of social-media stoked publicity suggests. In fact, they are much less likely to catch fire than are traditional combustion-engined cars.

When electric cars do catch fire, putting them out poses challenges, but industry is responding to these and looking to how it plans for future expansion of EV use – and even those who have studied EV fires extensively agree that greater adoption of EVs is essential to meet decarbonisation targets. Manufacturers, meanwhile, are constantly developing increased levels of safety on what are already some of the most up-to-date, technologically advanced vehicles on the road.

Users of EVs in the fleet sector can be justified in worrying about whether the next public charge point at a motorway services will be working properly but they shouldn’t be concerning themselves with the possibility that their car might catch fire – car fires as a a whole are rare, but much less likely to occur in an EV than in the petrol-powered vehicles it shares the road with.

  • This feature includes information originally compiled by the author in 2022 for a feature on the consumer website 

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Andrew Charman

Andrew Charman

Andrew Charman has been a motoring journalist for more than 30 years, writing about vehicles, technology and the industry. He is a Guild of Motoring Writers committee member and has won several awards including for his business coverage.

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