- Lithium-ion battery-powered vehicles have a tendency to catch fire.
- In New York City, lithium-ion battery fire have caused more deaths than cooking and smoking.
- Car-carrying ships are particularly susceptible to fires because vehicles are tightly packed and lithium-ion batteries ignite and burn quickly and intensively.
- Insurance rates for ships carrying electric vehicles are expected to rise, adding additional costs to electric vehicles, which are already much more expensive than internal combustion engines.
Not only are there more fires due to lithium-ion batteries in E-bikes and in electric vehicles, but they are far more intense and difficult to put out than other fires, burning with an energy that is twice that of a normal fire. The New York Fire Department recently reported that so far this year there have been 108 lithium-ion battery fires in New York City, which have injured 66 people and killed 13. And, last year there were more than 200 fires from batteries in e-bikes, electric vehicles and other devices. The fire commissioner warned New Yorkers that such devices typically explode in such a way that renders escape impossible. Further, in just three years, lithium-ion battery fires have surpassed those started by cooking and smoking as the most common causes of fatal fires in New York City.
Not only are fires occurring in garages and driveways across the United States, but they are also occurring on ships delivering electric vehicles across the seas. There were 209 ship fires reported during 2022, the highest number in a decade and 17 percent more than in 2021, according to a report from insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty. Of that total, 13 were known to have occurred on car carriers, but the number that involved electric vehicles was not available. Recently, a burning car carrier drifted off the Dutch coast into the North Sea and caused one seaman to perish. While the Dutch coastguard said the fire’s cause was unknown, Dutch broadcaster RTL released a recording in which an emergency responder indicated that, “the fire started in the battery of an electric car.”
On board that ship, there were 3,783 new cars, including 498 electric battery vehicles, according to a spokesperson of ship chartering company “K” Line, despite initial reports identifying the number of electric vehicles at 25. Both Mercedes-Benz and BMW each had hundreds of cars on board. The cause of the fire, while still officially undetermined, has raised concerns about transporting electric cars powered by batteries because their fires cannot be extinguished with water, or even by oxygen deprivation, the normal ways of quenching a normal fire. The chemical fire reaction in a lithium-ion battery produces oxygen, which assists in burning other parts of the system.
One hazard in lithium-ion batteries is “thermal runaway” — a rapid and unstoppable increase in temperature leading to fires in electric vehicles that are hard to extinguish and can spontaneously reignite. Fire extinguishing systems on ships that haul cars were not designed for the hotter fires. Recent fire-related losses are resulting in increased insurance costs for automakers shipping cargo and costs are also likely to increase for vessel owners. As such, automakers are buying additional liability protection.
Ship auto carriers are known as RoRos (short for roll-on/roll-off), which is the way cars are loaded and unloaded onto the ships. RoRos are like floating parking garages and can have a dozen or more decks carrying thousands of vehicles. Unlike parking lots, however, the cars are parked bumper-to-bumper with as little as a foot or two of space overhead.
EV battery fires on roadsides are typically put out by clearing the area around the burning vehicle and flooding the underside with water, which is difficult to do on a RoRo. There is no way for a firefighter in protective gear to get to the location of a fire on a ship. While trains and trucks also transport electric vehicles, isolating and extinguishing fires is easier when rail cars can be unhooked or a truck can be pulled over.
Options to strengthen safety systems on ships include new chemicals to douse flames, specialized EV fire blankets, battery piercing fire hose nozzles and proposals to segregate electric vehicles. The International Maritime Organization, which sets regulations for safety at sea, plans to evaluate new measures next year for ships transporting electric vehicles, which could include specifications on types of water extinguishers available on ships and limitations on the amount a battery can be charged, which impacts flammability.
Global auto sales last year totaled 81 million vehicles, 9.5 percent of which were electric vehicles, according to EV-Volumes.com. China and Europe have been the most aggressive regions to shift to electric vehicles. To force the EV transition on Americans, President Biden’s administration proposed rules that, if finalized, could result in as much as two-thirds of the new vehicle market shifting to electric vehicles by 2032. The proposed regulations on autos are part of the Biden administration’s climate policy, which is a “whole of government” endeavor.
Politicians are pushing the EV transition, supposedly to eventually reach net zero carbon. Lithium ion batteries in e-bikes and electric vehicles, however, are fire prone and those fires burn with an intensity much greater than a normal fire. Fires are occurring in driveways, in garages, and on ships carrying electric vehicles to their destinations. It is difficult to put out lithium-ion fires, and hard to escape them, causing fatalities. They are particularly hard to put out on ships as they are tightly packed with vehicles and firefighters have difficulty reaching them. The issue will likely require new safety regulations, as well as higher insurance premiums to cover the liability, increasing the cost of electric vehicles which are already much more than similar internal combustion engine vehicles.