In 2015, there were an estimated 32,166 fatal motor vehicle crashes — but when a car accident happens, the vehicle doesn’t always catch fire. Of course, Tesla’s electric vehicles are a bit different than your run-of-the-mill automobile, and they’ve come under scrutiny as late for their supposed fire risk. But are these vehicles actually more likely to burst into flames? Or is it merely that they’re getting more attention for it?
EVs have become more popular with each passing year. More than two dozen models are now commercially available, convincing some 800,000 Americans to make the switch to driving electric. They’re more eco-friendly and are starting to be more affordable, thanks to tax incentives. While finding charging stations can still be a bit of a challenge, the rising costs of gas are making some diesel devotees think twice about their devotion to gas-powered engines.
Of course, electric vehicles have received their share of criticism. Back in March, a fatal Tesla vehicle crash caused the car to catch fire four separate times. Putting out electric vehicle fires is more complicated in general, as the techniques used to douse gas-powered vehicular fires would actually make the situation worse. And the lithium batteries used to power EVs have also proven a problem for airline carriers and e-cig users alike.
Lithium batteries carry hazards gas tanks do not, in that they contain their own ignition systems (and therefore their own fire risk). But experts believe these may be isolated incidents that are not indicative of the overall safety of these vehicles. According to research compiled by CNN, electric vehicles likely do not pose a greater fire safety hazard than gas-powered vehicles do.
An in-depth investigation conducted by Battelle for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2014 found that “the propensity and severity of fires and explosions from … lithium ion battery systems are anticipated to be somewhat comparable to or perhaps slightly less than those for gasoline or diesel vehicular fuels.”
The National Fire Protection Association reported that there were 174,000 vehicle fires in the U.S. during 2015, with virtually all fires being attributed to gasoline-powered vehicles. When you crunch those numbers, you’ll realize that a gas-powered car catches on fire every three minutes or so. That’s backed up (unsurprisingly) by a post penned by Tesla Chairman Elon Musk in 2013, which noted that the risk of a gas-powered car catching fire was four times greater than the risk of a Tesla going up in flames. (The company has since amended that figure to 11 times, rather than four.) Although more than 390 million vehicles have been recalled in the U.S. since 1996, those stats show that maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn electric vehicles — at least, not any more so than other cars.
That said, electric vehicle data can be hard to come by, considering this technology is relatively new and hasn’t necessarily been susceptible to widespread use. Although Bloomberg has explicitly said that battery fires are “rare,” part of the problem may be a lack of training in terms of firefighter response and consumer safety. And comparatively, we’ve had a lot more time as a nation to make gas-powered cars safe to operate. So it’s likely that more advancements will be made in this area in the near future.
If safety is your top priority, it’s likely that EVs aren’t really any more dangerous than gas-powered vehicles.