After a Volkswagen Golf (not an electric vehicle) caught fire in the underground car park in Eku-Platz, Germany, the city’s civil engineering department closed the car park for five months. Damages (all eventually paid for by insurance) amounted to 195,000 euros. As a condition for the reopening, however, the insurance company forbade the use of the underground garage by hybrid and electric vehicles.
There were several reasons. Lithium batteries can only be cooled with extinguishing water and continue to burn for several days. The car park’s ceiling is not high enough to pull out burning vehicles with heavy equipment. This means that every other vehicle in the car park, as well as the entire building, remains at risk of a fire or explosion that could have disastrous results. Yet as the fire protection report admitted, nobody had even considered the magnitude of the fire risk from lithium-ion batteries prior to the Golf fire.
The fire risk from electric vehicles is not just a German parking garage problem. Nearly a year ago the National Transportation Safety Board acknowledged that at least half of the nation’s fire departments are not equipped to put out battery-powered car (EV) fires. The NTSB too agreed that lithium-ion batteries burn with extraordinary ferocity; battery fires also release emissions of extremely toxic fluoride gas.
Last November Reuters reported that worldwide acceptance of EVs, despite government mandates and subsidies, is being threatened by a global string of fires from overheated batteries. The article included a list of recalls by major auto manufacturers and what their investigations found.
Hyundai recalled at least 74,000 Kona EVs, after 16 of them caught fire over a 2-year period, to upgrade their battery management systems. Of the first 23,000, Hyundai found 800 vehicles with battery defects requiring replacement of modules said the have a significant risk of an electrical short circuit.
Ford Motor Co. recalled 20,500 European Kuga plug-in hybrid EVs and suspended sales. Ford offered to replace the entire battery pack, identifying the root cause as a battery cell contamination in its supplier’s production process. The setback delayed the U.S. debut of the Escape SUV.
BMW’s recall was limited to about 4,500 plug-in hybrid EVs, admitting that debris may have entered the battery cells during production, which could lead to short-circuiting and a “thermal event.” BMW also recallefficd 26,000 other plug-in hybrids over potential battery problems.
In response to a petition filed pursuant to a class action lawsuit, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration recently probed potential defects in certain Tesla vehicles that could result in non-crash fires. The plaintiffs claim that Tesla limited the battery range of older vehicles via a software update to avoid a costly recall to fix alleged defective batteries.
Capping the list is General Motors, which initially recalled nearly 70,000 Chevy Bolt EVs over fire risks, with the fix limiting battery charges (and thus mileage) to 90 percent capacity. The NHTSA has also investigated why three Bolts caught fire while parked. GM says the problem was traced to a torn anode tab and a folded separator, both of which could occur at the same time and create conditions that could lead to a short in affected cells.
In August, GM announced a second recall of 73,000 more Bolt EVs (every Bolt ever made) to replace new battery modules; the fix could cost GM $1.8 billion. Moreover, GM has decided to idle Bolt production “due to the impact of the global chip shortage.” Meanwhile, GM has recommended that Bolt owners park their vehicles outside and limit battery charges to 90 percent or lower, at least until replacement batteries are ready and service appointments are scheduled.
The problem with this mandate is obvious. Those whose in-home EV charging stations are in their garages cannot exactly park their EVs outside and charge the vehicle at the same time. The same goes for EV chargers now located in underground garages. Moreover, the fixes typically reduce battery charging by at least 10 percent, further shortening the vehicle’s range.
One supposes that some EV owners could just move their charging stations outside, but who leaves a vehicle out in winter cold or summer heat when they have a perfectly good garage? Yet who wants to risk burning down the house to avoid scraping the windshield or putting their tushes on a hot car seat?
Earlier this year Value Penguin reported that auto insurance for EVs is on average about 23 percent more expensive than for an equivalent internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. This is despite the fact that the average EV is driven far fewer miles a year than ICE vehicles. In California, home to 40 percent of U.S. EVs, drivers average just 5,000 miles per year behind the EV’s steering wheel. For many, the EV is the second (or third) car. But will insurance companies also raise rates for EV owners with in-garage charging stations?
In the Golden State, embattled Governor Gavin Newsom a year ago issued an executive order that would ban the sale of ICE vehicles buy 2035, with enforcement left to state agencies. One problem with this mandate is that the California Air Resources Board may be able to implement rulemaking to ban ICE sales, but CARB has no authority over vehicle registration and no authority to set registration fees to make ICE vehicles more expensive.
President Joe Biden, too, has talked tough about a nationwide mandate for EVs, but he, too, may be in deep trouble with voters over a number of other issues. As more and more people learn that their EVs pose a fire risk by manufacturers telling them to park their EVs outside, it seems quite possible that voters will soon sour on any politician who mandates inconvenient outdoor charging to avoid the risk of setting their homes on fire.