No electric car has ever caught fire under real-world conditions, but the battery packs of two Chevy Volts have in test crashes. The controversy that followed could have been predicted, unfortunately. For all our talk of embracing innovation, there is always someone ready to declare that the growing pains of disruptive new technologies are in fact their death knell.
That’s why I created the two graphs above, based on data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the National Fire Protection Association. Every year, more than 250,000 vehicles catch fire, largely because every gallon of gasoline contains roughly 100 times as much energy as a kilogram of TNT.
Every year, on average, 440 people are killed and more than 1500 injured when their conventional vehicle catches fire. We’re all driving what are essentially giant liquid-fueled bombs with wheels attached, and the only reason we never have to think about it are the many decades and extraordinary measures that stand between us and the earliest conventional vehicles.
Most things that can make their energy density readily available are going to carry with them the risk of runaway reactions, whether that’s a short circuit or fire and explosion. Poorly made lithium-ion laptop batteries that aren’t so different from the cells in a Chevy Volt have caught fire before, and might again. And it must be granted that there are a tiny number of electric cars on the road compared to conventional vehicles.
However, numbers like the above — and the fact that GM thinks it has a fix for the Volt that will make current and future models more or less immune from this problem, demonstrate that the issue of vehicle fires in electric cars is not just much ado about nothing, but a complete inversion of the logic all new car buyers should adopt when considering the safety of electric vehicles.