10 Dec 2023

The fears of lithium-ion battery fires not necessarily in fair relation to the low frequency of EV-incidents


“The media don’t treat EVs and ICEs with equal footing, because gasoline is not sensational anymore.”

Many firefighters report difficulties extinguishing fires in vehicles with lithium-ion batteries. But how often do EVs catch fires compared to conventional fossil fuel vehicles?


Photo Credit:
A BMW Car Fire on 18 October 2007.  Photo by Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States. Wikipedia Commons License. 

In a December 2023 article on Spectrum.ieee.org, it is argued that the media has been exciting the fears around fires in electric vehicles  -  and not placed them in a fair comparison to ICE (gasoline or diesel) powered vehicles. 

Paul A. Kohl, a professor at GeorgiaTech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, in Atlanta, says to the site: 

“The media don’t treat EVs and ICEs with equal footing, because gasoline is not sensational anymore.”


Far fewer fires in EVs than with other fuel types

Available statistics show that conventional vehicles catch fire more often than fully electric vehicles. Yet, argues Professor Kohl, when fires occur which "involve more than one electric vehicle — whether car or scooter or e-bike — the media and authorities have recently revealed a tendency to rush in to blame the EV".  


READ THE Entire ARTICLE on Spectrum.ieee.org


So what are the statistics?

In Sweden, according to Spectrum.IEEE, battery EVs and hybrids already represent 40 percent of new cars sold. However,  the numbers of EV fires are relatively low.  MSB,  Sweden’s Civil Protection and Emergency Management Agency,reports that in 2022, there were only 24 EV car fires in Sweden, representing 0.004 percent of battery-powered cars there. 

For cars running on gasoline or diesel fuel, the fire rate was 0.08 percent, or 20 times the frequency.

The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, also in 2023, released a report on tests of a method for extinguishing EV-fires which involved puncturing the casing of the lithium-ion battery. The method, according to the report, achieved significant cooling of the battery within minutes and extinguished the EV fire with minimal water use.


Hybrids the most fire prone - EVs by far the least fire prone 

Let´s look at some more international numbers for how EVs compare to ICE vehicles: 

In February 2023, CTIF.org wrote an article which outlines some of the general statistics of EV fires vs ICE fires.

In an article on Autoweek.com from October, 2022, researchers from insurance deal site Auto Insurance EZ compiled sales and accident data from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the US National Transportation Safety Board.

The researchers found that hybrid vehicles were the most prone to catch fire, followed by gasoline vehicles.  

According to the compiled statistics, hybrid vehicles had the most fires per at 3474.5 per 100,000 sales. 

There were 1529.9 fires per 100k for gas vehicles and just 25.1 fires per 100k sales for electric vehicles.


EV fires more sensationalized because they are relatively new

"EVs are still novel and still unknown to a large portion of the public. News and media outlets report on electric car fires more often because of its, which can make it seem like they are a common occurrence", says the article on Autoweek. 

An October 2022 article on CRSAutomotive.com make a similar conclusion, however also cautions that more scientific data is needed to be sure. 


Gasoline ignites rapidly - EV ignition is usually delayed

The article also states a delay in ignition, due to the chemistry of batteries as opposed to gasoline, is what primarily differs in a crash between gasoline powered vehicles and EVs.

"... Gasoline fires start almost immediately when gasoline comes in contact with a spark or flame and spreads rapidly. Battery fires typically take some time to achieve the heat necessary to start the fire... In some instances, that delay is very good news. It can let the occupants of a car involved in a crash get out of the vehicle before the fire starts. But it can pose its own problems", states the article


Training and standardized methods are necessary

The issue, rather than the inherent flammability of the lithium batteries, is, according to Autoweek, rather a matter of training, new methods and public awareness of how EV fires behave. 

Lithium-ion batteries are commonly considered to burn hotter and can last much longer than gasoline, which tends to burn out quickly in a ore explosive manner. 

Lithium-ion battery fires can take tens of thousands of gallons of water to extinguish, depending on the method used. The National Fire Protection Association notes that one EV fire in Texas required more than 30,000 gallons of water after a crash.

"Fire departments aren't always equipped with trucks and other gear to deal with that. Emergency responders and firefighters must follow different response guides than for gasoline fires, and need training to properly extinguish the blaze".



Logo of the CTIF Extrication CommissionCTIF and Euro NCAP takes the lead in Europe  on ISO standardized rescue sheets

The US  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has also found that many automakers still have incomplete or inadequate emergency response guide notes on EVs.

This is an area where CTIF has been working intensively with the automotive industry and Euro NCAP to provide firefighters with standardized rescue sheets for all vehicle types. The CTIF Commission for Extrication and New Technology started already in 2016 to develop the ISO 17840 Standard for vehicle firefighting, including rescue sheets downloadable through a smart phone app, and propulsion identification stickers for all heavy vehicles.  

This puts Europe somewhat ahead of the rest of the world, where car safety testing organisations like NCAP have not yet managed to implement this important standard.