The social media feeds are full of reports of burning e-cars, garnished with attention-grabbing photos of outright conflagrations. Grist to the mill of the perennial opponents of electricity, reason for the uncertainty of those who are fundamentally positive about electromobility. Photos and reports are still haunting the web of the Tesla that, after an accident and fire in Tyrol in 2019, was unable to find a disposal company for weeks to take care of it. In general, Teslas seem to burn much more often than all other electric vehicles. Or not?
As an e-car driver, do you really have to be afraid of dying up in a fireball in the event of an accident – or even worse, completely unexpectedly while driving?? Can you still plug the car into the wall box in the garage at home with a clear conscience without having significantly increased the fire insurance of the house? What to do if the dreaded case of a vehicle fire actually occurs?
First of all: no, e-cars do not catch fire more often than vehicles with combustion engines, and Teslas no more often than other e-models. And yes, if the case should nevertheless arise, it actually poses a challenge for emergency organizations and waste disposal companies that many cannot yet deal with professionally.
Electromobility is a young technology that polarizes and is therefore observed with eagle eyes. Almost every fire, even if it comes from the furthest corner of the world, travels around the world in the media. But does anyone care if farmer Bolle’s old Mercedes burns down in Hintertupfing?? The fact is, the image is distorted to the maximum, the probability of a vehicle fire is lower with e-cars than with combustion engines. The fire load is also comparable in new vehicles, as there is a similar amount of plastic and electronics in a modern combustion engine as in an electric car. Manufacturers are legally obliged to comprehensively test the batteries with crash and abuse tests and to install protective measures. An electric shock in an accident electric car is almost impossible. No excuse not to provide the occupants with first aid.
Due to the media fire storm for the period 2012 to 2020, Tesla itself analyzed how often its vehicles caught fire. This was the case once per 330 million kilometers driven in the period mentioned. The United States National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), on the other hand, states that there is one vehicle fire for every 28 million kilometers driven on American highways alone. These numbers also make it clear that the risk of fire is significantly higher with a combustion engine. But Tesla has learned. In the period from 2012 to 2018, one Tesla caught fire every 170 million kilometers driven, so drivers of newer models are on the safe side.
However, the fact that in the event of an accident or fire in an e-car, many emergency services are still faced with big question marks over their heads should not be swept under the carpet. There is simply not enough experience with such operations, extinguishing with lots of water or foam is only suitable to a limited extent. Educational work and further training are required, as Hubert Springer from the Austrian Fire Brigade Association also knows. “The operational and tactical basics” are there, as Springer explains, but practice is lacking.
Emergency organizations and waste disposal companies are not idle, but work together on solutions to minimize possible dangers for people and the environment on site and after the fire has been extinguished. Specially developed battery extinguishing lances are intended to limit the large amounts of water that were previously required to extinguish a burning electric car. The world-renowned fire brigade outfitter Rosenbauer recently developed an extinguishing system in which an extinguishing spike is driven into the battery from below by remote control and the extinguishing water is fed directly into the battery housing. The system is suitable for all battery designs (pouch, prismatic, round cells) and has already been tested by fire brigades throughout Europe. Libarescue, on the other hand, is a fireproof “sleeping bag” that is put over the car to absorb subsequent battery fires. So far, the vehicle either had to be quarantined in a container for several days or was flooded with fire-fighting water, resulting in a total loss of the vehicle. If fires break out under the fireproof ceiling, gases are released in the fabric that extinguish the fire. This innovation was developed by the North Rhine-Westphalian company Gelkoh in cooperation with the textile company Ibena.
Once the fire brigade has finally extinguished the fire and the danger averted, further questions arise. Burnt and thus damaged batteries pose new storage and transport risks, which is why “all members of the resource economy, from the manufacturer to dismantling, recycling and disposal, have to sit down at one table”, as Prof. dr. Roland Pomberger emphasizes. He is head of the chair at the Institute for Waste Recycling Technology and Waste Management at the Montanuniversitat Leoben (Styria) and a Europe-wide pioneer in the field of recycling automotive batteries and all related logistics issues. It is practically impossible to rely on empirical values from the recycling of conventional cars, space is needed for safe storage and the staff must be comprehensively trained.
So there is still a lot to do, of which all those responsible are aware. And everyone lends a hand, but this is not shared on Facebook. By the way: the cause of the fire in the accident Tesla stranded in Tyrol was not the battery, but inappropriate contact with a conventional tree.
Sources: electric WOW/Issue #4/2021 – Much ado about nothing?, Practically implemented//autobild.en – Do electric and hybrid cars pose a greater risk of fire?//driver.com – Elon Musk lays the cards on the table: So often Teslas really burn//lion-care.com – Extinguish fires in electric cars//stern.de – Austrian fire brigade outfitter develops extinguishing system for electric cars
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