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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.