Fires in electric vehicles are actually less common than in other types of personal cars.

In 2021, EVs caught fire at a rate of 25 cars per 100,000.  Gas cars burst into flame 60 times more often. Hybrid vehicles are actually the real problem as they suffer from fires at a rate of 3,475 per 100,000 units.

However, media headlines and social media videos put every EV fire in your line of sight. Some experts believe that this creates an inflated perception of unreliability and unsafe products. Still, when you look into why electric cars do suffer from the occasional fire, alarms will go off.

What Causes Electric Vehicle Car Fires?

The most common reason for modern EVs to burst into flame is a faulty battery pack. Instead of an internal combustion engine, an EV is propelled by one or more powerful electric motors. The motors get their energy from a massive battery pack. 

If one of the battery cells overheats, it can start a chain reaction. One after another, cells in the lithium-ion battery turn into a white-hot molten mass with enough energy to ignite the next cell.

Once the fire starts, it moves quickly through the entire vehicle and generally leaves little more than a burned-out heap. An electric vehicle fire generally results in totaling the car.

You may have heard of cell phones or battery-powered scooters bursting into flame. The airlines have restrictions on traveling with these types of batteries as they are known for causing fires.  

The batteries do not just burst into flame because the car was left in the sun. Excessive heat is generated as energy is added or drained out of the battery. In other words, it can happen while driving or charging.

While there are cooling systems installed in the battery, once the hot battery reaches critical mass, a bit of air blowing over the pack will not cool it down. That is when the chain reaction begins.   

Why don’t electric vehicles use the same type of battery found in your TV remote?

The old alkaline or nickel-metal-hydride rechargeable batteries cannot store or send out enough power to operate a heavy car. Only the lithium-ion batteries can deliver the muscle needed to get your ride up to 60 mph while fitting into the frame of the car. Even traditional car batteries would be too heavy since you would need 20 to 25 of them to match the power of a new EV. And they are not designed to provide sustained power.

How are Lithium-Ion Battery Packs in EVs Made?

Electric vehicles have huge battery systems, enabling the latest models to travel up to 300 miles on a single charge. Earlier EV cars placed the battery under the hood or in the trunk, which encroached on cabin and cargo space. Newer battery technology allowed car manufacturers to get creative in building batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are broken down into cells, modules, and packs. The latest BMW EV uses eight modules to create the full pack. Each module features 12 battery cells. Each module has a frame that protects the cells from shock and excess heat. The modules are tied together so that energy is evenly produced or stored. This helps to extend to life of the battery. Some are projected to last more than 15 years.

A multiple-module design means that the battery pack can be shaped to create a platform that runs the entire length of the vehicle and sits under the seats. This opens up design options for using part of the old engine compartment for storage.

As you can see, since the battery pack runs from bumper to bumper on the most recent electric vehicle models, if it does experience a fire, the entire car will quickly go up in flame.

What Minerals are used to Build EV Batteries?

The most common lithium-ion battery currently on the market uses a mix of lithium, oxide, cobalt, manganese, and nickel to achieve impressive performance. All of the minerals are mined from the earth.

The next generation of EV batteries will focus on using less of the most difficult to mine minerals like nickel and cobalt. But that does not mean the next kind of battery will be less expensive or more powerful.  It is possible that the next mix of minerals will be less susceptible to extreme operating temperatures and fire.

Why do Lithium-Ion Batteries Get So Hot?

As with any type of battery, a chemical reaction between the different elements in the battery produces energy that is captured and converted into electricity. The chemical reaction itself produces heat, but not enough to cause an EV battery to catch on fire.  The chain reaction lithium-ion fire happens when a battery cell has a thermal runaway event.

The wires and circuits that connect each cell to the module and pack all carry heat as electricity is transferred to the motors. That heat builds on the heat generated inside the cell.  Most lithium-ion batteries have a maximum heat tolerance of no more than 140 F. Insulation protects the batteries from direct sun.

Once the cell reaches a critical temperature, it starts to expand to dissipate the excess heat. If you have ever had a cellphone battery blister, that is the same kind of swelling found in a faulty EV battery cell.

Unfortunately, once the cell blisters, it can crack open. A rush of oxygen enters the cell that adds fuel to the superhot chemical reaction. Thermal runaway ensues. The battery turns into a white molten blob that swiftly ignites the surrounding cells.

A toxic white smoke pours out of the battery while plastics and metals melt. A thermal runaway event can reach temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Celsius. Water has no effect and can even make the fire worse.

What Keeps an EV Battery Cool to Prevent Fires?

The battery in your electric vehicle includes vents and fans that constantly introduce cool ambient air to the battery pack. Driving down the road also helps to whisk away the hot air surrounding the battery.  When you plug the car in for charging, it activates the cooling system. All the major EV manufacturers have spent years improving temperature control systems for the batteries. More than 99% of the time, the EV battery pack performs exactly as expected and will likely not catch on fire.

What EV Companies are Experiencing Battery Fires?

Usually when there is a design flaw in a new car, recalls will affect one or a handful of models from a single manufacturer. Unfortunately, battery fires in electric vehicles are happening in nearly every type of EV on the road.

Every Chevrolet Bolt produced between 2017 and 2022 has been recalled for replacement lithium-ion modules. The fires occurred most often when the car was charged up to 100%. Also running the battery down resulted in extended charge times and increased the possibility of a fire.

The plug-in Chrysler Pacifica has been recalled by Stellantis for the same type of charging problems. This affects around 20,000 vehicles. Volkswagen is calling back about 118,000 plug-in hybrid SUVs, trucks, and vans sold around the world.

The Hyundai Kona and Ioniq was recalled for years 2019 to 2020. Their battery modules have an anode tab on the cells that can get folded during assembly. This leads to a short in the pack and ultimately can spark a fire. They recommend parking the car outside and charging only to 80% capacity until new batteries are sourced.

While Mercedes-Benz isn’t calling back their vehicles due to poor battery design, the brand-new EQS needs to have an electrical short fixed. At the time of the recall, only 24 were sold, but an overheating electric motor on an EV will lead to a battery fire.

Tesla has not had to recall any of its electric cars for battery problems. Any battery fires that they experienced are directly connected to accident damage.

That said, any electric vehicle that is involved in a fender bender will need to have its lithium-ion battery thoroughly inspected. The impact can break a single connection loose on one cell which can lead to a fire.

Do Electric Vehicles Explode while Charging?

The headlines about EV fires often include words like, “exploding battery.” Does that mean your car would fly into a million pieces due to a bad battery? No.

A lithium-ion fire is an extremely fast-moving event. It goes from a trickle of smoke to active sparking, billowing smoke, and shooting flames in just a few seconds. That earns it the reputation of exploding batteries. However, if the fire starts at the battery, there may be a slight popping noise as the cell breaks through its insulated coating.

A gas-powered car is more likely to have an explosive event due to its fuel tank. The fumes from a cracked fuel cell can ignite due to a spark. This is when you see cars jump up in the air in movies.

If a fire is burning near the tires on either kind of vehicle, the air inside the tire can superheat, expand, deform the rubber, and ultimately pop the tire. It is technically an explosion. But it wouldn’t send parts of the car flying in all directions.

The bad news about any fire in any car is that once it grows beyond a very small section of the vehicle, your car will likely be a total loss. The extreme heat will melt protective coatings on wiring and computer boards. Your upholstery can become brittle, melt, or burn. Rubber gaskets, belts, and other connections will deform. While the frame of the vehicle may survive, not much else will.

Electric vehicles are more susceptible to experiencing a whole-car event since the source of the fire will likely be the battery. And in newer models, the battery pack runs the entire length of the vehicle. In a thermal runaway, there will be no saving the car.

How Can You Avoid a Lithium-Ion Battery Fire in Your Electric Vehicle?

If you drive an older Toyota EV, there is a good chance that you don’t have a lithium-ion battery pack. Toyota used a nickel-metal hydride battery for their older rides. The Toyota bA4X does use lithium-ion.

However, if you drive any EV built after 2015, it is likely that you have some type of lithium-ion battery powering your ride. The manufacturers all suggest following these steps to reduce the chance of a battery fire.

Reduce Stress on the Charging System

Try not to run your electric car down to empty on the battery meter. The same applies when topping up the battery all the way to 100% every night. Your charger uses more voltage to refill an empty battery and to fully complete the charge cycle. More voltage means more heat.

Set the Limit for Maximum Charge

Most electric vehicles help you to maintain your battery. Enter the energy management menu using the onboard touchscreen or your app. Select a maximum charge setting of 80% to 90%. The car will shut off any charger automatically before it gets too hot to be safe.

Avoid Emptying the Battery Below 30%

Most EV models released today have a driving range of 200 to 300 miles. Make sure to stop to recharge if you drop below 80 or 90 miles left on the battery. The car doesn’t have to work as hard to pull power from a battery with more than 50% charge left.

Park the Car Outside

If your car has received a recall for a faulty battery system, it is wise to park it outside overnight. If you leave it in your garage while it is charging, and you are asleep, you could look at a structure fire in addition to a car fire.

Is It Harder to Fight a Fire Caused by an Electric Vehicle Battery?

If you compare putting out an electric vehicle fire to putting out a pile of brush in your backyard, it’s much harder to get the lithium fire under control.  First, pouring water onto lithium actually will start a fire. So, your instinct to turn on the garden hose will simply make it worse.

Call the Fire Department Immediately

If you see flames or your EV smoking, drop everything and dial 911. Since lithium is so reactive to oxygen, the chance that the fire will go from small to insane is highly likely. Remember, the entire EV can be engulfed in under a minute.

Call the fire department to try and save your home, the garage, or other vehicles parked nearby.

Turn off the Power

Should you be at home when a fire starts and your car is connected to the charger, turn off power to the entire house and garage if possible. That stops one energy source from contributing to the conflagration.

Water is Ineffective for Lithium Fires

When you drop a piece of lithium into water, it instantly reacts with the liquid. It immediately bonds with one part of the hydrogen and the oxygen, which leaves a single hydrogen atom. The chemical reaction creates heat, which ignites the hydrogen.

So, pouring water onto an electric vehicle fire simply sets you up for a bigger fire.

Douse a Fire in Your Cell Phone Using Sand or Baking Soda

Using a bucket of sand or a box of baking soda to bury a burning battery from your cell phone will help to put out the fire. It stops oxygen from reaching the super hot battery. Fire extinguishers that use a dry chemical or foam are also effective.  

However, a handheld extinguisher’s likelihood of having enough material to put out a car fire is extremely low.

What to Do If Your Electric Vehicle was a Lemon

While electric vehicles are actually much less likely to burn than gas-powered machines, that does not mean that this new technology is entirely free from defects. Whether your EV falls under a current recall or you have had problems with the battery charging system, it may be subject to California lemon laws. If your electric vehicle was a lemon, don’t hesitate to reach out to an experienced attorney like Neale & Fhima APC.

While car manufacturers are scrambling to source safer battery systems, they will also be reluctant to properly reimburse you for all the costs and damages related to your electric car problems. You may have suffered burns, inhaled toxic smoke, or ended up in a collision. You deserve to have the car repaired or replaced, and your wallet made whole. When you call in the professionals, they have the time and resources to chase down the responsible parties while you focus on finding your new normal.

Electric cars are generally very safe, but it is clear that some carmakers are struggling to find technology that is dependable, affordable, and provides the power you need. If you ended up with a lemon, don’t just chalk up the loss to growing pains. Working with an attorney can help you get back on the road with a properly manufactured EV designed for a greener future.