When a vehicle catches fire, it’s usually no more interesting than a dog bite, unless of course that vehicle is an electric car. Tesla suffered a wave of bad publicity following three high-profile vehicle fires in 2013, and nearly every Tesla crash still seems to be in the national news.
Source: EVANNEX; Photo by Casey Murphy
Tesla now wants to set the record straight. In his 2020 Impact Report, the company presents data showing that ICE vehicles catch fire at a much faster rate than Tesla.
In 2019, there were nearly 190,000 vehicle fires in the United States alone, a tiny fraction of which involved electric vehicles.
“From 2012 to 2020, there was about one Tesla vehicle fire for every 205 million kilometers driven,” Tesla tells us. “By comparison, data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the US Department of Transportation shows that in the United States, there is a vehicle fire for every 19 million kilometers driven. “
“In order to provide a proper comparison with the NFPA data, Tesla’s data set includes instances of vehicle fires caused by structure fires, arson and other non-vehicle related reasons, which represent some of the Tesla vehicle fires during this period. “
Battery fires are rare, but they do happen – Chevrolet recently recalled 51,000 Bolt EV after a few fires that appear to have been caused by faulty battery modules. The laws of physics dictate that any medium that can store enough energy to drive a car – gasoline, battery, or anything other than “distilled unicorn tears,” as one joker said in 2013 – can start a fire. In case of problem.
Tesla and other automakers go to great lengths to minimize the risk of fire when they design their batteries. co-founder of Tesla Marc Tarpenning told me in 2013 that when the Tesla team designed the Roadster, their efforts to make sure its batteries were safe “bordered on paranoia.” Tesla’s batteries are designed so that each cell is isolated from its neighbors, so that a single overheated cell will not cause a chain reaction. They contain sensors that monitor the acceleration, deceleration and tilt of the vehicle, in order to detect an accident, as well as sensors that detect smoke and overheating.
Will the risk of fire increase in the future, when there are a large number of old electric vehicles on the road? Following the release of Tesla’s data, some online commentators assumed that the majority of ice fires likely occur in older, poorly maintained vehicles, and suggested that to have the full story we need to know the average age of the vehicles that catch fire.
Fortunately, efforts to improve security are underway. “We continue to improve our battery chemistry, cell structure, battery pack structure and passive vehicle safety to reduce the risk of fire as close to zero as possible,” Tesla says. “Finally, for the rare cases where Tesla vehicles are involved in a fire, we do detailed information available to first responders so that they can safely handle these emergencies.