By on October 31, 2012

16 Fisker Karmas waiting at a New Jersey port caught fire, with all 16 cars burning to the ground.

Photos of the aftermath were obtained by Jalopnik, which also obtained this statement from Fisker

“It was reported today that several Fisker Karmas were damaged by fire at the Port of Newark after being submerged in sea water during Superstorm Sandy.  We can report that there were no injuries and none of the cars were being charged at the time.

We have confidence in the Fisker Karma and safety is our primary concern.  While we intend to find the cause as quickly as possible, storm damage has restricted access to the port. 

We will issue a further statement once the root cause has been determined.”

Anyone with a science background (or anyone that got better than a C in Chemistry…): how do the vehicles go up in flames after being submerged in sea water. Anyone? Buller?

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62 Comments on “Fisker Flambe At New Jersey Port Damages 16 Karmas...”

  • avatar

    Thank God these weren’t Model-S Performance models!

  • avatar

    “Anyone with a science background (or anyone that got better than a C in Chemistry…): how do the vehicles go up in flames after being submerged in sea water. Anyone? Buller?”

    – I wonder if the investigator from the insurance company is wondering the same thing.

    As if we needed proof that Karma truly is a bitch.

  • avatar

    Salt water and lithium batteries. I suspect they may not have been submerged, or at least not for long.

  • avatar

    Lithium + water = bad things.

    • 0 avatar

      Lithium-ion batteries contain no elemental lithium (which reacts strongly to water). They use lithium carbonate, which has no such reaction.

      Think about elemental sodium and water. Then think how much sodium chloride you ingest daily.

  • avatar

    Salt water is extremely conductive, even more so since it was probably contaminated with who knows what else. You have a few hundred volts worth of lithium batteries just waiting to short-circuit through the water.

  • avatar

    Oh the humanity, I mean, what would Tom LaSorda say now?

    What’s the big deal, after all, I recently learned that a submerged Honda will automatically lower the windows to allow escape.

    If the Honda can do that, then Fisker’s trick is obviously some kind of premium feature.

  • avatar

    One word: “Sealed connectors”… Ok, that’s kinda like two words, but I could seal the gap between them with a hyphen…

  • avatar

    In other news Fisker plans to celebrate when they get a check for the lost 16 cars – it will help keep the lights on for two extra days.

  • avatar

    I remember, back in High School Chemistry lab, my teacher placing a small sodium rock in water and it catching on fire. If I am not mistaken, lithium would have similar behaviour.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    It’s wrong but I thought this was funny. Thankfully no first responders had to handle this toxic mess. I’d be nervous in a carwash.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Metallic potassium and metallic sodium oxidize very rapidly in the presence of pure water, freeing up hydrogen from the water. The reaction generates a lot of heat, which usually ignites the hydrogen.

    Lithium, like potassium and sodium, is an “akalai metal” and, like them, the pure metal reacts strongly with water. The lithium reaction is not as hot at that of potassium or sodium, but, perhaps there are other factors — such as the presence of chloride ions in the salt water — that cook things up.

    Not sure of the chemistry of these batteries . . . but the old lead/acid car batteries they’re not.

  • avatar

    AB ran a story in 2009 about how the Volt and i-MiEV were both tested for immersion in seawater. You’d think other EV makers do the same thing.

    Search on “what happens if the chevy volt sleeps with the fishes”.

    Something is seriously wrong with the Karma for all 16 of them to have fried. Maybe their gasoline ignited, which is much more likely – this happened during the Japan tsunami. But again, having them ALL do this is extremely unlikely.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes but being parked so close to each other means that only one had to start the fire and then it spread to the others.

      • 0 avatar


        The concerns about mixing lithium and water are true, but you have to penetrate the sealed metal case that contains the lithium jelly for a fire to occur. You’d think driving an EV through a mud puddle would make this happen, based upon the comments here.

        I’m still guessing it had something to do with the gasoline.

    • 0 avatar

      I think most people are thinking too hard.

      IMO, Fiskars are just poorly & incompletely designed.

  • avatar

    Verbatim from a 2007 report written by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council on the effects of salt water to these types of batteries:

    “Treat lithium batteries as potential bombs and give them a high level of respect.”

  • avatar

    Oh, look search “lithium” and “water” on Youtube and you get incredibly stupid links like this:

  • avatar

    I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this is a lithium-water “thermal event”.

    It’s certainly possible, but I guarantee that some form of water resistance/safety shut-off was designed into the battery system. These cars aren’t the only lithium-powered systems out there. Do they catch fire every time someone drives through a puddle? Does your laptop catch fire when you spill a drink on it? Does your phone explode when you drop it in the toilet?

    Maybe the complete submersion did overwhelm the battery safety systems, but I wouldn’t rule out a different cause entirely.

  • avatar

    It very well may have had nothing to do with the batteries. Where I used to work we made a 12VDC power distribution circuit board for a truck mfgr. This board was conformal-coated to protect it from the elements (even though it was mounted in a supposedly-dry location on the vehicle). The board handled most of the vehicle’s power distribution so it was designed to carry approx. 80A total.

    We had several reports of thermal events from the field (usually in mid to late winter). We analyzed hundreds of returned boards and had the dried substances we found on the boards analyzed – road salts!

    So we did our own testing, and found that by spraying the (conformally-coated) energized circuit board with a salt water solution, we could consistently produce a thermal event in under an hour (sorry, didn’t save any video but it was like watching the 4th of July fireworks in miniature right on the PCB).

    Add the much higher voltage potential of the main battery pack in an EV, and it’s easy to see how this could happen. Salt water + any electrical equipment never works out well . . .

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed it had to be the salt water. You can almost entirely forget the “water” part and focus entirely on the “salt.”

      Power companies have problems in beach areas with salt spray buildup on power line insulators. If beaches go too long without rain to wash the salt off the insulators they have to systematically shut off power and spray the insulators with water to prevent the system from leaking power to ground and browning out (or tripping out) the local grid. When my father was a distribution engineer for the power company growing up he had to initiate just such a project deep into the peak of beach season in Ocean City, MD one year.

      • 0 avatar

        This is only a story in some people’s minds because some Karmas have caught on fire in the past. If memory serves me correctly it’s something that happens to Lamborghinis and Ferraris quite frequently, as well. That it happened in saltwater flooding conditions is merely interesting. I’ll await the official findings before jumping to any conclusions.

  • avatar

    Then people are arguing that A123 batteries are safe and reliable.
    The car falls in a pond of water, and it catches fire… What about rain or a car wash? Electric cars are very dangerous vehicles.

  • avatar

    I think it has less to do with lithium than with the fact that saltwater conducts electricity.

    Canadian navy found out the hard way with a fatal sub fire.

  • avatar

    The biggest problem with the loss of 16 Karmas is the financial toll. I assume Karma’s insurance company will pay the claim, or maybe someone associated with the port or transport company.

    The good news is it gives Karma’s plant some work to do, backfilling the lost product.

  • avatar

    yes, what daiheadjai said. This is not Li + H2O –> LiOH +H2 (or if you want to balance it 2Li +2H2O –> 2LiOH + H2)

    This is just a short circuit. The same thing happens to laptop batteries…less spectacularly (unless it’s on an airplane).

  • avatar

    If you want to try something fun, bridge the connections on a plain old 12V car battery with a wrench or other piece of metal. That is a short circuit. Now image doing it with a battery pack hundreds of times as powerful. You don’t even need a wrench, sea water is plenty conductive when dealing with hundreds of volts and thousands of amps.

    The battery chemistry is irrelevant, same thing could happen with a big lead acid battery. And has.

    I do think that they need to figure out the hows and whys of what caused the short. Something is not as sealed as it should be. But I would worry no more about an electric car than my current one with 17 gallons of gasoline in the tank.

  • avatar

    Hell, just drop a standard 9V battery in salt water and watch the show.

    Generally speaking, submersion is not likely scenario during normal driving. The regular 12v car battery does not short out on wet salty roads and neither will the Fisker. Completely submerge either a Fisker or a standard 12v car battery and the story is very different.

  • avatar

    A Russian friend (well, classmate actually, if you catch the difference) reported from Brooklyn that a large number of conventional cars burned down while flooded. Presumably the short-circuiting of good old acid batteries was enough to start fires. Fisker is no different, although perhaps lithium aggravated the situation somehow. Or maybe not.

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      I have lived almost all of my life in the Florida Panhandle and on the Alabama Gulf Coast. I have been through numerous major hurricanes and have never heard of any cars catching fire as result of being immersed in storm surge. They are often found partially buried in the sand, but they don’t spontaneously combust. There must be something different in the water in NYC.

      • 0 avatar

        You may be right. I just noticed at the following link that both burnt cars are KIAs (it’s a different Russian from the one I mentioned, I don’t know him personally):
        Meaning, all those other cares are not fire-prone. Well, KIA is still a gasoline car, and it may suggest that if Fisker designed their car more like Lexus than KIA, then it would not burn despite being electric. But there’s no telling.

  • avatar

    I think part of my instinctive schadenfreude is due to the price of these cars. Something similar impacting a crop of any other Elite-mobile would probably be equally funny.

    Plus the sheer absurdity of their melted-plastic look is a hilarious rejection of their formerly highfalutin airs.

    Collectively they exude the pathos of those aircraft parked wingtip to wingtip and destroyed on the ground during Pearl Harbor.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    This could certainly be a plus in flood- prone , hurricane – prone areas like Florida , Louisiana , Mississippi , or the Texas Gulf Coast area ( Houston ) where I live .

  • avatar

    The important take away message from the burning vehicles is not to park them in large pools of salty water. I’ll keep that in mind and avoid doing so in the future. Before today I had no clue it could be a bad idea.

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    It’s a good thing these cars were burned. Now they cannot be cleaned up and sold to unsuspecting buyers like many of the flood cars from Hurricane Katrina.

  • avatar

    The more TTAC hates ’em … the more I like ’em. Given the build numbers these things will become collectibles in no time. I think after reading this “article” I’m going to officially put the Karma on my “keeping an eye on used prices” list.

  • avatar

    Honestly, this looks like something I’d have drawn in my maths notebook in primary school before I knew better, before I knew about production costs and coefficients of drag and curb weights, before I knew why every shmuck with an idea in his head and the desire to have his name spelled out across someone’s grille didn’t just go ahead and release “the best car in the world.” This car looks practical at a first glance, but it is doomed to be a fashion statement and nothing more. Not that there’s anything wrong with fashion statement vehicles; I think they’re great. But when you have taxpayers breathing down your throat and you’re trying to prove electric technology, perhaps it would be a prudent idea to build something that delivers on at least one of its promises. Tesla did much the same thing with the Roadster, but it was blatantly a niche car, rather than something that peddled itself off as a sedan fit for ordinary use, and it had performance specs that made its electric-drivetrain an asset. The Roadster said to the world, “We’re just getting started.” The Karma says, “This is honestly the best we can do.”

    Perhaps, then, this catastrophe was nature’s way of eradicating a pointless car. All of that svelte bodywork and sophisticated trimming–wasted, because Fisker put an underwhelming, uneconomical, fire-prone drivetrain beneath it.

    On the plus side, the cars that haven’t burned themselves to the ground will become retirement plans once they skyrocket in value on the grounds of rarity.

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