By on November 14, 2011

I’ve suggested in these pages that the several documented fires involving Chevrolet Volts suggest some kind of pattern, as no other major-manufacturer EVs have been involved in any reported fires. But, as Ronnie Schreiber at Cars In Depth points out, even that pattern seems to pale in comparison to the National Fire Protection Association’s tally of highway vehicle fires in the US each year. Though the number of highway vehicle fires has decreased significantly since 1980, 2009 still saw 190,500 fires. And between 2003 and 2007,

On average, 31 highway vehicle fires were reported per hour. These fires killed one person a day.

Of course, if we’re talking about 200k fires (roughly) in 2008, a year in which there were 256 million registered vehicles (roughly) on the road, we’re still talking about less than one tenth of one percent of all vehicles on the road bursting into flame (.078%). On the other hand, with just over 10,000 Volts built and some 5,000 delivered, three fires could be either relatively insignificant (.03%) or comparable to the rest of the cars on the road (.06%), depending on whether you base it on production or deliveries. And because vehicles must be delivered before they can be used in normal circumstances, it seems that thus far the Volt is delivering a slightly lower percentage of fire incidents than the general vehicle population… which is estimated to be over 9 years old on average (whereas Volts are all a year old or less). So, while the evidence suggests that EVs as a class are just as fire-safe as any other car, the Volt still seems to be something of a statistical question mark.

 

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25 Comments on “Chart Of The Day: The Truth About Vehicle Fires Edition...”


  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Not to pick nits, but doesn’t this graph represent in vehicle fires rather than on the road fires?

    Now to pick nits: I think without a break down into categories, the graph only shows that there have been some improvements in vehicle design and manufacture. Thing is that fires arise from many systems and subsystems like fuel, electrical, component as diverse as the wiring harness, motors, relays, brake light switches, fuel storage, pipes, hoses, fuel delivery, power steering hydraulics, cat converters (starting grass under the vehicle on fire), ignition switches self immolating, or cruise control shut-offs ditches heating brake oil above its flash-point, etc., etc., etc.

    Unintended thermal events can spring from so many causes, that comparisons can only be made in the roughest of statistical ways. That said however, if the Volt population is shown to be more fond of burning than its contemporaries, then this is a worthy basis for deeper investigation and action.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Ed,

    Mustn’t you also adjust for the number of vehicle-years the vehicles have been in service?

    For the existing fleet, it’s pretty close to 256 million vehicle years (you’d have to adjust it a little for vehicles coming in to or going out of service).

    For the Volt, sales didn’t really catch fire – ooops – ramp up until September. We’ve had a close to negligibe number of Volts on the road for the bulk of the year.

    Looking at Volt experience by deliveries, it would be on the order of 2300 vehicle-years of Volt operation to date, or about .13% or somewhat less than twice the average.

    Now, if vehicle age is a factor in vehicle fires with older vehicles responsible for a disporportionate number of fires… well, the Volt fleet is brand-spanking new. Comparing Volts to vehicle fires in vehicles no more than a year old would be appropriate.

    Of course, of the three events I remember hearing about, two were while the vehicle was parked in the home. I’d be more inclined to think that improper installation of the charger was the root cause of the problem. Factor that out and the Volt starts to look somewhat safer than the rest of the fleet (not adjusting, still, for age).

    Maybe the safest vehicle is an EV as long as you never charge it. Which would also greatly reduce chances of a regular accident.

  • avatar
    doctor olds

    The most recent Volt fire was the result of a side impact crash test, not a defect in the car. Another garage fire case in Mooresville,NC originated away from the Volt, according to initial investigation. A third fire case, also involving a garage fire involving a homebuilt EV was reported last April. There has been no indication that the Volt caused that fire and there seems to be no evidence of a Volt fire originating from the vehicle itself, other than the one originating from the crash test.

  • avatar
    TR4

    Is it mere coincidence that the graph shows improvement at about the same time Ford Pintos were retiring to the junkyards?!

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      Funny cheap shot, but all Pinto rear-end fire deaths totalled about 27. By contrast, GM sidesaddle fuel tank deaths totalled at least 155.

      However, a vehicle with a lithium-ion battery is more prone to fire (Leaf and Volt), and adding gasoline to it makes it worse (Volt). But the specific design details for each are critical, and each mfr knows the risks.

      The real story is the graph; I think the Volt stuff is a non-story until more information is known, and there is a greater Volt population out there.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven02

        For GM’s side saddle tanks, you might have to look at how many Pinto’s were sold vs how many trucks with sidesaddles were sold. I am going to guess that there were far more GM trucks sold. By the numbers listed there, it would roughly need to be 6 times as many to be an even percentage. My guess is that it would be well over 10 times as may trucks vs pintos sold.

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    The more I read about the “Volt fires”, the more I am reminded of the airport scene from Rain Man. Raymond very convincingly refused to fly, unless they were flying Qantas – the only airline without a recorded commercial crash. He just didn’t care that their LA to Cincinnati flight would have to connect through Australia, nor did he care about the extremely high safety record of all the other airlines. Just one crash on any other airline was simply unacceptable.

    I hope more info like this comes out to counter all the easy-to-sell, alarmist news on the Volt fires. As stated above, the oldest Volt on the road isn’t even 6 months old. We simply need more data via more Volts on the road (or plugged into garages?) to make a meaningful comparison, or simply compare to vehicles in the same age.

  • avatar
    TR4

    When the neighbor kid’s Cutlass caught fire one of the things the firemen did was pry the hood open to cut the battery cable. I wonder how they handle EVs with a few hundred volts available?

  • avatar

    Am I the only person troubled by the fact that NHTSA crash facility, which I’m sure has all sorts of safety procedures in place, failed, at least according the GM’s statement, to follow standard procedures that GM has made available to first responders? I can understand it if some Podunk fire department doesn’t follow those protocols, but this is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Why didn’t they follow those protocols?

    • 0 avatar
      Dimwit

      A good point. I’d like to know what it was they SHOULD have done and wasn’t. It certainly sounds like they simply took it out back and left it.

      That graph doesn’t tell the whole story. Are there model consistencies? There could be whole model years without a fire while others aren’t so lucky. Ferrari flambés anyone?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      From something GM said earlier, the NHTSA didn’t know about those protocols. The question is why didn’t they know about them. Did GM tell them? Did the NHTSA ask? Did the NHTSA know, but the people conducting the test not know? It will be interesting to find out why this happened the way it did.

      • 0 avatar

        Steven02, I spoke to a GM rep. Bottom line is that there’s a learning curve. GM didn’t notify NHTSA because GM’s currently set up to send a response team out to each air-bag deployed Volt and discharge the battery. Since this was a test car supplied to NHTSA no response team went out. I’m still surprised that NHTSA didn’t implement there own safety procedures.

        I don’t know if the current procedure can be scaled up if they sell 45K Volts a year. So GM (and Nissan and Mitsubishi and everyone else selling Li-Ion powered cars) has some work to do in terms of educating second responders.

        The procedure is for first responders to isolate the battery. GM’s been working with emergency agencies to show them how to do that. They also say that they’ve been working with trade groups for second responders like tow truck and salvage yard operators to inform them about the need for discharging and that they’ll be making a discharge device more widely available as the Volt rolls out.

        When I suggested the phrase “learning curve” the GM rep said, “that’s exactly right”.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      GM spokesmen also said to fully drain the battery’s charge, off scene I guess, then dispose. So it’s disconnect/reconnect/drain/dispose? What’s the drain procedure? I’m in the tow/autobody industry so I’m naturally curious about mine and my colleague’s safety. Maybe GM engineers know something I don’t but how long will it take them to respond? 24 hrs a day?

      • 0 avatar

        DenverMike, that’s a good question. I’d imagine that they have teams on call. The drain procedure probably involves bleeding off current to ground through some kind of bigass resistor.

        GM’s rep told me that they’re working with trade and industry groups in the towing and salvage industries in order to educate what GM called second responders.

        If you go to my most recent post @ Cars In Depth, you’ll find links to first responder training sponsored by Chevy at the NFPA.org site. You can probably find a contact at that site to find out about second responders and the battery draining gizmo GM is making available next year.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      @Ronnie Schreiber

      Lots of great info/illustrations I’ll be passing around. Thanks!

  • avatar
    tiredoldmechanic

    There’s one simple reason vehicle fires have declined, and thats the decline in the number of carburated vehicles on the road. Stuck floats and leaky mechanical fuel pump diaphragms were prime culprits back in the days of quadrajets, thermoquads, Holleys etc.
    Rusted out fuel tanks and the resulting leaks were always a hazard as well. Remember how most pickups had the tank behind the seat in the cab? (“Mind if I smoke?”)
    Compared to the vehicles of just a generation ago todays cars are remarkably fire safe. A loss rate like the Volt’s wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow in 1980.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Those are some of the reasons. Another big on is the relocation of fuel tanks and fillers from just in front of the rear bumper to more central locations. GM’s pickup truck fuel tank location behind the seat was also a big issue.

      Also, tighter emissions requirements have led to better sealed fuel systems and longer lasting fuel system.

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        Chevy hasn’t used the in-cab fuel tank since 1972. Ford used it up into the 70s. If you had an accident bad enough to compromise the in-cab tank, you’re dead anyways . . .

  • avatar
    John Horner

    The graph, by the way, shows the positive effect of tighter regulations and agressive suing by injured parties. Older vehicle designs were much more likely to catch fire than are today’s vehicles, and the manufacturers didn’t make the changes they have had to make purely out of the goodness of their hearts.

  • avatar
    niky

    Under-seat tanks aren’t a big deal… otherwise Honda wouldn’t sell hundreds of thousands of Honda Fits (and associated variants) with them.

    I actually like the Fit’s tank placement. Dead center in the vehicle… as far away from any crush zone as humanly possible.

  • avatar
    obbop

    Smokey Bear says only you can prevent Ford fires.

  • avatar
    eldard

    No tally by brand? I’m sure Ford would dominate. Followed by anything Italian.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not quite sure. Pintos were loooong time ago. But the first thing I got for my jeep was a fire extinguisher on a quick-release mount. Just about everyone who went anywhere far has a story of jeep going up in flames. Kinda sucks on the trail 50 miles from the nearest human settlement.


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