How many electric cars actually catch fire? We ask the experts
By Sourced Externally
December 19, 2023
If you’re considering the shift to electric power but are concerned about the risk of a battery fire, here’s what you need to know.
Lithium-ion batteries are the cornerstone of the electric revolution as the world weans itself off fossil fuels.
Lithium-ion batteries offer a good balance between weight, energy density, power output and battery life – making them well suited to powering electric vehicles.
In September 2023, two EV fires were reported in Australia in the same week, which naturally raised concerns about the safety of EV batteries.
Lithium-ion battery fires are especially dangerous because they burn fiercely and can release toxic gases with the risk of vapour cloud explosions.
To make matters worse, EV battery fires are very difficult to extinguish, as they are impervious to common fire suppressants.
So, is this a problem all prospective EV owners should be aware of, or much ado about nothing? We found out.
How many electric cars catch fire every year in Australia?
While EV battery fires tend to make the headlines, the fact is that they are extremely rare – much rarer than when internal combustion engine vehicles are catching fire.
Passenger electric vehicles have a 0.0012 per cent chance of catching fire, according to research from EV FireSafe, which provides free EV fire safety knowledge for emergency responders. In comparison, petrol or diesel-powered cars have roughly a 0.1 per cent chance of igniting.
In other words, an EV passenger vehicle is around 100 times less likely to catch fire than a traditional vehicle. That said, the average EV is only four years old, while the average ICE vehicle is around 12 to 15 years old, which might have some impact on the figures.
“The figures vary slightly between data sources but, as a general rule, you’re far less likely to have a fire in an electric vehicle than you are in an internal combustion engine vehicle,” says EV FireSafe project director Emma Sutcliffe.
From 2010 to June 2023, EV FireSafe recorded 393 verified passenger EV battery fires across the world, of which only four were in Australia. One was linked to arson and the other three vehicles were parked in structures that burned down.
How are EV battery fires impacting insurance premiums?
While lithium-ion battery fires present a risk with EVs, it is not clear whether this risk is affecting Australian EV insurance premiums or house and content premiums for homes with an EV parked on the premises.
“Allianz Australia has not received a claim involving an EV battery fire to date,” Chris Wood, Emerging Risk Manager at Allianz Australia, told Drive.
“However, a survey we conducted of new and potential EV customers told us that cover for an EV battery fire was something the customers valued, so we have deliberately highlighted battery fire cover in our Retail Motor insurance product offering and advertisements.”
A wide range of factors contribute to the higher cost of insurance premiums for EVs, according to the Insurance Council of Australia, but it declined to comment specifically on the impact of the risk of battery fires. Of course, electric vehicle insurance premiums will vary greatly depending on insurers.
EVs are generally more expensive to purchase than internal combustion (IC) vehicles and have more complex systems and components, specifically their motor parts and batteries, according to an Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) spokesperson.
“The cost of these parts and the limited number of qualified service centres and technicians contributes to the higher cost of insurance premiums for EVs than IC vehicles,” the spokesperson said. “Other factors such as the age and history of the driver, storage, and make and model of the vehicle also contribute to the price of a motor insurance premium.”
“In addressing these issues, the ICA and insurers are collaborating with various stakeholders, including government, to support greater uptake of electric vehicles in the future.”
How/why do EV batteries catch fire?
EV batteries have better safety features than most batteries, with built-in management systems that monitor temperature, voltage and current to prevent overheating and fires when charging.
“Charging an EV is inherently safe, as long as your charging unit is compliant and installed properly, and your car is in normal operation with no battery damage,” says Emma Sutcliffe.
“When you’ve just spent good money on an EV, don’t skimp on your home charger – make sure it is electrically compliant and installed by an electrician with its own circuit.”
There is a risk when charging a lithium-ion battery that is damaged or has a manufacturing defect. The battery can experience an internal chain reaction known as ‘thermal runaway’, generating so much heat that it catches fire. On rare occasions, damaged lithium-ion batteries can also cause vapour cloud explosions.
Emma Sutcliffe recommends that EV drivers download the ANCAP rescue app, which provides first responders with Rescue Sheets detailing each vehicle’s structure and potential hazards. Along with collision damage and manufacturing defects, EV batteries are also at risk of fire if they have been submerged in water, particularly salt water.
How do you decrease the risk of an EV battery fire?
“We need to raise EV driver awareness around the fact that if you’ve been involved in a collision, even if it’s fairly minor, you should get the battery checked out rather than driving home and putting it on charge,” says Emma Sutcliffe.
“The same if you’ve hit road debris, if the car has been submerged in water, or if it’s been close to a bushfire which has burned underneath the car.”
Manufacturing faults are the most significant EV battery fire risk, especially as some EV owners tend to drag their heels when a recall is issued.
“If your EV is on recall, don’t charge it up, instead follow the instructions from the manufacturer,” says Emma Sutcliffe. “Get it checked out, get the battery pack swapped if necessary and install any software updates.”
“If EV owners were more vigilant when it comes to acting on recalls, we’d likely see a 15 to 20 per cent drop in battery fires.”