Will Fire Safety Concerns Slow EV Acceptance?

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The Williams team’s celebration of its first Formula One victory in 8 years at the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona was cut short by an explosion and fire in its paddock garage that ended up injuring 16 people from a number of teams as they tried to put out the fire. Reportedly, one person was seriously burned though there are conflicting reports. Pastor Maldonado’s winning car was unharmed, as it was still undergoing post race scrutineering, but teammate Bruno Senna’s Williams which had retired from the race and was in the garage, near the fire’s origin, was badly damaged. Though Williams and Formula One have since said that the fire started in a fuel rig, early published speculation was that a spark from the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) device in Senna’s car had caused the fire. KERS essentially makes F1 cars into hybrids that can store energy during braking and then release it when needed for acceleration. It’s not surprising that people immediately jumped to conclusions to blame the KERS device. Electricity has always scared some people. New technologies also scare folks and and people seem to have an inordinate amount of interest in the fire safety of the latest generation of electric vehicles and their batteries. A single crash-tested Chevy Volt caught fire and misinformation about “exploding Volts” continues to reverberate. A few days ago an almost new Fisker Karma destroyed itself, two other cars and much of a house in Sugar Land, Texas a few days ago, again piquing considerable interest.

Chevrolet and Fisker have moved with alacrity to reassure consumers that their serial hybrids are not fire hazards. Chevy quickly engineered reinforcements for the Volt battery case. Fisker immediately absolved the burned Karma’s battery pack as being a possible cause of the fire. Local fire officials, though the investigation is not complete, concur with Fisker. As quickly as GM and Fisker have responded, the speed with which EV skeptics have seized on those isolated incidents and the fact that before the smoke in the Williams garage fire today in Barcelona there already were published reports saying that sparks from the KERS device ignited that fire.

Despite support and subsidies from a variety of governments, EVs and hybrid face obstacles to market success. Surveys show that only a small percentage of consumers will seriously consider a hybrid. I suppose that’s natural for any new technology, but I think it’s possible that concerns about fire safety may add to those obstacles.

It doesn’t really make sense when put in perspective. Due to a recalled electrical component, many times more Mini Coopers have burned (12) than all the burned Volts and Karmas combined (2). Combustion powered cars carry around rather flammable fuels and hundreds of thousands of cars burn every year in the US alone. In contrast, the fires involving new mass produced EVs are literally singular incidents.

It may not make sense and consumers, despite what economists would like to believe, are not rational actors. Fire provokes a primal fear. Fair or not, if EVs get tagged with with the stigma of being fire hazards, it’s just going to make it harder for them to gain consumer acceptance.

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13 Responses to Will Fire Safety Concerns Slow EV Acceptance?

  1. walter homple says:

    Could you do a little research and math to clarify this a bit?

    x1=12/(number of MiniCoopers)
    x2=2/(number of karmas+volts)

    Thank you.

  2. scot4999 says:

    I had the same thought, he sounded very misleading in the article. So I did the research and in the US 405249 mini’s have been sold up to sept. only 3895 volts to that same time. The sales data for the Karma has been harder to find and the best number i could find was 88 world wide(?). So 2/3983 = 5.02e-4 and 12/405249= 5.02e-5. So there you go your premise is busted. When you actually DO put it into perspective the fear does make sense.

    The other issue is I had was your statement that fuel used in combustion vehicles are very flammable. That just isnt the case. Diesel is hard to ignite hence the high compression and gas is only high when it is in gas form not the liquid form it is held at in the tank. You also have billions of cars manufactured while EV’s are relatively new and unproven.

    • Ronnie Schreiber says:

      Actually, BMW appears to have a corporate wide fire safety problem with turbocharged Minis, BMWs and Rolls-Royces. The simple fact remains that a dozen Mini Coopers have burned, 8 of them when parked, and you’ve heard much more about “exploding Chevy Volts” and the Fisker fire than you have about burning Minis.

      As for diesel not being flammable, that’s simply absurd. Kerosene burns quite easily in normal atmospheric conditions. Gasoline liquid is flammable, but gasoline vapors are explosive in the right concentration, and gasoline can easily volatilize at normal atmospheric conditions.

      There’s a reason why they drain the fuel tanks of gasoline and diesel powered cars when they crash test them. If a similar protocol was followed with the Volt at NHTSA, there never would have been even the one Chevy Volt that ignited.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFm6o-qB6T4

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzi8Ull24KQ

      • scot4999 says:

        Liquid fuels dont ignite they burn. To get Liquid gas to burn takes 536 F. And you are saying that is flammable? The flash point is -45 F. Deisel on the other hand has a flash point of 144 F or 62 C. For reference, for a liquid to be considered combustible it has to have a flash point under 40 C. So Diesel isnt even considered a combustible fuel. It take 410 F to ignite Diesel.

        Property Diesel Fuel (general) Diesel Fuel No. 1 Diesel Fuel No. 2 Diesel Fuel No. 4
        Autoignition Temperature (°C) 177-329 254-285 263

        • scot4999 says:

          My point in all this that you are over dramatizing the dangers of Traditional fuels to drive a point. No one doubts that gas is flammable, if it wasnt it wouldnt be used in a combustion engine. What I am arguing is that they are far less a fire concern as you alluded to in your post and call attention to it because it comes across as dishonest analysis to further a point.

          My suggestion is to stick to facts. Percentages show that over all EV fires are not much more than combustion vehicles. That should be your point. Then we could argue the statistics. Like the age of the car that caught fire, what caused the fire (electrical or combustion system ect) to isolate and make a one to one comparison. Or the CBA of buying a more expensive car with a presumed higher fire rate.

      • scot4999 says:

        “The simple fact remains that a dozen Mini Coopers have burned, 8 of them when parked, and you’ve heard much more about “exploding Chevy Volts” and the Fisker fire than you have about burning Minis.”

        Yes because of the percentages! 12 out of over 405k vs. 2-4 out of less than 4000. We are talking scale here not simple numbers burned. jeez

        you are again trying to misrepresent the numbers to make it look less bad. You cant just say 12 minis and 4 volts burned therefore minis are more a hazard, that is dishonest.

  3. Nerdie McSweatervest says:

    hundreds of thousands of cars burn every year in the US alone.

    Really? Can you cite a source?

  4. scot4999 says:

    Nerdie,

    approx 190k in 2009
    source: NFPA.org

    Keep in mind there are over 254 million cars on the road. so ratio = 7.47e-4

    hope that helps

  5. magmonster2002 says:

    The thing about electric cars is that they’re foisted on us daily by warmongers and the authoritarian left. They’re the mommy state and sugar free apple pie. They’re “I’m saving the earth and you’re not” self righteousness. In short, it’s fun to pop to balloon of pomposity and there’s few things as pompous as the oh so earnest eco crowd.

    • scot4999 says:

      The dream of electric vehicles can cross the politic aisle (and does). But what crosses the aisle is the economics of it rather than the environmentalism. Make a cost effective EV and people will buy it up in droves. The market should drive it though not subsidies, i agree.

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