There have been two separate fires this week in New South Wales related to lithium batteries from electric vehicles (EVs), but experts insist the technology is safe if handled properly.
As of July, there were 130,000 EVs on Australian roads – with 57,000 of those purchased in the first seven months of this year, according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.
Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) responded to 114 lithium-ion battery fires in the first seven months of the year – about a 20 per cent increase on the same period last year.
But none of these were actually caused by EVs.
The bulk of these fires were portable batteries, e-scooters, and e-bicycles, and experts said EV fires remain uncommon.
According to Australian-based research company EV Fire Safe, there have been more than 390 verified battery fires across the world since 2010.
Peter Khoury, from the NRMA, said the fires they have come across with EVs are incredibly rare.
“There are a lot less lithium battery, EV-type fires than there are for ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicles. But they are still a risk.”
What caused the recent EV fires?
On Monday, five cars were destroyed after a lithium-ion battery detached from one of the vehicles exploded at Sydney Airport.
In a separate incident on the same day, FRNSW said an EV caught fire after it hit debris on a road at Penrose in the NSW southern highlands.
Matthew Priestley, an expert in EV engineering with the University of NSW, said despite the growing uptake, there did not seem to be a significant rise in fires.
He said issues often arise when there is damage to the battery system or it isn’t properly stored.
“The challenge is when these electric vehicles do light on fire, they can create quite an unsafe area because these battery fires can even create an explosion risk and they can emit very toxic gases and chemicals,” Dr Priestley said.
One of the biggest problems was extinguishing a fire once an EV battery system caught alight.
Dr Priestley said once a battery exceeded a certain temperature, it created a self-sustaining fire “like a snowball running down a hill that just continues to pick up more and more snow”.
“There’s nothing you can do until you bring the battery temperature back under that point and if you can’t do that then the battery fire will just continue until all of the energy in the battery’s gone,” he said.
How to prevent a fire
Dr Priestley is currently developing a safety course outlining the potential hazards and how to manage them.
He said it was important EV owners read their vehicle manual, and that most models have a mobile app that detects any potential issues with the battery system.
Charging equipment should only be installed by a qualified electrician, using only EV-compatible extension leads and power sockets.
As for buying a vehicle, NRMA spokesman Mr Khoury said safety needs to be at the forefront of every car purchase, EV or otherwise.
“Make safety number one. If you’re buying an EV do it the same way you bought every other car you ever own. Look at the safety performance of the vehicle, get a five-star rated vehicle find a car that has a good safety rating.”
What to do in an EV fire
If there is an incident, Fire and Rescue NSW urged motorists to make sure the parking brake is on and the vehicle is switched off before leaving the vehicle.
Even if there is no visible smoke or flames, you should keep clear of the vehicle and call triple-0.
An EV that has been involved in a collision or fire should be treated with caution, as damaged batteries may ignite days or weeks after the incident.
Damaged EVs should be kept in an open area at least 15 metres from other vehicles or buildings.
EV drivers told the ABC they were unfazed by concerns around safety.
Tom Goudkamp has been driving his EV for three years and said thoughts around batteries catching fire hadn’t ever registered with him.
“I didn’t know about it, that’s not a concern at all,” he said.
Although, he said when he picked up his car, there was little advice on the car provided.
“You can read about it on your phone. There’s a website for it, and they show you videos and you’re supposed to learn it yourself.
“I’ve never gotten round to it.”
Anthony Lim bought an EV this year and said while he had concerns before purchasing the car, after buying and driving, he’s been assured.
“When I did get the car, it’s actually different and it’s different in a good way.
“I would say maybe in one of million [a fire] could happen,” he said.
Do they need better regulation?
FRNSW and the Environment Protection Authority have stepped up an awareness campaign warning of the risks of lithium-ion batteries and the need for safe disposal.
The campaign includes social media posts to remind people to take the batteries to a community recycling centre rather than through the average kerbside bins.
It also urged owners of EVs to make sure their vehicle is identifiable by emergency services with a blue EV sticker, to install a smoke or heat alarm in garages where it is regularly parked or charged, and to ensure all charging connections are installed by a qualified electrician.
Not marking your electric car with a sticker on the number plate can attract a defect notice or a fine.
Dr Priestley said EV manufacturers are well-regulated, arguing it was e-bikes, e-scooters, and other smaller battery-operated devices that needed tighter regulation.
“A lot of those devices have sub-standard lithium-ion manufacturing processes or battery management systems which are inherently unsafe compared to other premium products,” he said.
Mr Khoury argued technology being ahead of laws on the roads was nothing new.
“Technology always sets the pace,” he said.
“Someone came up with seatbelts and then we designed a law to make sure that they were compulsory. Too many people were getting drunk and getting behind the wheel. So we came up with a way to catch them and stop them from doing it.”
He said the performance of batteries, safety advice being made more readily available, and access to charging facilities should be the priority.
Extracted in full from: Experts say EV battery explosions remain rare as authorities extinguish two fires in one week – ABC News