By on November 3, 2016

Tesla fire

A severe head-on crash in Indianapolis last night claimed the lives of two people — but because it’s a Tesla, the story made national news.

According to the Indianapolis Star, the Model S impacted a tree, throwing debris 150 yards and starting a fire that consumed the vehicle. This isn’t a story about whether the vehicle or its electronic systems may have caused the crash — police made it clear that speed was a factor.

Rather, the aftermath of this crash shows what firefighters face when the lithium-ion battery pack in an electric car catches fire.

The crash took place near the city’s downtown, on a street that raises no suspicions of potential Autopilot use. Deceased are 27-year-old Casey Speckman and 44-year-old Kevin McCarthy.

“The impact of the crash disintegrated the car leaving a debris field over 150 yards long,” Indianapolis Fire Department Battalion Chief Rita Reith said in a media release. “Firefighters arrived and had to contend with the car fire and multiple fires in the road left by the small batteries and magnesium strewn about.”

Model S vehicles built since early 2014 contain a titanium underbody shield designed to further protect the potentially volatile battery from damage. However, there’s only so much an automaker can do to protect components during a high-speed impact.

Warnings printed on lithium-ion batteries found in household appliances and devices exist for a reason. The lithium used in the battery reacts when exposed to air, and the electrolyte is flammable. A puncture, or exposure to heat, makes for a dangerous situation.

“There’s a lot of volatility in those batteries when they’re exposed unnecessarily,” Reid told NBC affiliate WTHR. “They are pretty well-contained until they get into something like this where the impact literally made the car just completely blow apart.”

Firefighters smothered the flames with dry powder and water to reach the occupants.

[Image capture: RTV6]

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43 Comments on “Tesla Crash Shows What Firefighters Deal With When a Battery Pack Catches Fire...”


  • avatar
    JimZ

    1 a.m.? no, pretty sure there was no alcohol involved. No sir, none at all.

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    So what is the takeaway? EV batteries can be dangerous but if you’re in an accident bad enough to expose them you’ll already be dead from the impact? Like that big tank of flammable gasoline in your other car that we all drive around without a single worry?

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Tesla.

    Because every major car crash should come with fireworks. Fireworks will make America great again!

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    There are 500 car fires a day in the US, yet this high-speed crash/fire makes the TTAC news.

    A Nissan Leaf caught on fire once:
    https://electrek.co/2015/09/04/a-nissan-leaf-caught-fire-in-north-texas-cause-currently-unknown/

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      the difference is that fire crews may not be up to speed on responding to a burning lithium-ion battery. Water and foam won’t necessarily help because lithium reacts even more energetically with water. plus there’s the possibility of hazardous voltage still being present.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s more so to highlight that Teslas crash like any other cars. This isn’t clickbait or anything of the sort. We discussed it a bit. The fact that Tesla crashes get the press they get is the news here. The fact that it shouldn’t get the press it garners is notable.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        “It’s more so to highlight that Teslas crash like any other cars. This isn’t clickbait or anything of the sort. We discussed it a bit. The fact that Tesla crashes get the press they get is the news here. The fact that it shouldn’t get the press it garners is notable.”

        This is important context. I kind of feel like something to this effect should be part of the article.

        But, then again, I’m an EV partisan, FWIW.

      • 0 avatar
        FerrariLaFerrariFace

        “It’s more so to highlight that Teslas crash like any other cars. This isn’t clickbait or anything of the sort. We discussed it a bit. The fact that Tesla crashes get the press they get is the news here. The fact that it shouldn’t get the press it garners is notable.”

        Making this a self-fulfilling prophesy. Or irony. Something like that.

    • 0 avatar
      DaPlugg

      If you recall a few years back in teslas infancy the roadsters were catching fire left and right

    • 0 avatar
      tced2

      Of course there are many, many more gas powered cars than cars powered by lithium batteries.
      I believe there are about 250 million cars in the US so 500 car fires is a very small percentage. Gasoline is a pretty energy dense substance that is used very safely by millions and millions every day. I don’t know if lithium battery equipped cars have a similar safety rate for fires.

  • avatar
    bikegoesbaa

    I was present for an accidental fire during the testing of automotive-size lithium battery fire a few years ago.

    The fire department showed up with multiple trucks, and leaped into action getting all their hoses ready and gearing up.

    Then somebody told them it was a lithium battery fire, and they said “nevermind, we just let those burn themselves out” and left one small truck and like 3 guys there to watch it and make sure it didn’t spread to anything else.

    It was an impressive fire, that much energy being released in an uncontrolled way gets your attention. It also smells awful.

  • avatar
    orenwolf

    Slow TTAC news day?

  • avatar

    There are GOOD reasons airlines have restrictions on lithium-ion batteries, particularly in any higher quantities or in locations like checked luggage.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes very good reasons for that.

      As we found out as a boy scout pack the same restrictions apply to *empty* vessels that have *ever* had campers “white gas” in them. That was as a result of a plane that went down in the everglades in the late 90’s. We had to repurchase camping gas tanks when we got to Colorado.

      The only fuel a plane should carry is the stuff in the wings.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      @jcwconsult:

      Yes, but perhaps not the reasons you’re probably thinking of.

      Lithium ion cells are supposed to have both mechanical and electrical protections built into them to prevent short circuits from causing a fire. Cheap knock-off designs often don’t. These measures do NOT and can not prevent fires in situations where the case is breached, such as in a crash.

      In my last job, we shipped maybe 500k lithium ion packs over a period of about 15 years. Of those, only 1 caught on fire, and it turned out to be a knock-off battery pack that our customer thought had come from us, but hadn’t. Turns out the cells lacked the proper mechanical protections. This was evident even after a fire.

      In the case of the infamous Galaxy Note 7 fires, the batteries likely had improperly-designed protection circuits, or an internal mfg error that prevented the protection circuit from being effective. That this flaw came out of Samsung is downright astounding.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        the only grumblings I’ve heard on the Galaxy Note 7 is that either the design of the phone lets typical handling mechanically strain the battery, or there isn’t enough space inside to allow the cell to undergo its normal expansion and contraction while being charged/discharged. I’m told (by someone who knows charging circuits for mobile devices) that LiPo/LiIon cells do “swell” a tiny (TINY) amount during normal cycling, and if constrained too tightly can internally breach one or more separators. But if the cell/pack is *visibly* swelling, get it the hell away from anything combustible ASAP.

  • avatar

    “Warnings printed on lithium-ion batteries found in household appliances and devices exist for a reason. The lithium used in the battery reacts when exposed to air, and the electrolyte is flammable. A puncture, or exposure to heat, makes for a dangerous situation.”

    More interestingly Lithium-ion batteries contain both the fuel and oxidizer required for burning. Then there is a little something in the battery world called thermal runaway….

    • 0 avatar
      chuckrs

      There are two youtube videos by the FAA on putting out fires in laptops and the like on planes. Long story short – its already burning, letting it burn out isn’t a good option when in the air, so drown it to stop thermal runaway. And be prepared to put it out again, until its cold and out. IIRC, Tesla’s have 65-85 Kw-hrs energy, while my largish laptop battery has 0.097Kw-hrs, so different procedures make sense.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve read elsewhere that Tesla battery technology revolves around some kind of a breakthrough in anode technology but relies on a commonly used liquid electrolyte. Most commonly used electrolytes contain some fluorine compounds which can generate hydrofluric acid when mixed with water. In what quantities I do not know.

        But supposing that is true, is it possible that putting out such a fire with water as depicted in the video could produce a hazmat situation?

        I don’t know much about any of that except to say that I service a large wrecker and recovery organization that has to clean up truck wrecks with some regularity. It’s astounding what the cleanup from an accident like that can trigger. They have crews on standby to recover the soil, dig up pavement, and handle cargo problems. I’m just wondering if a Li battery fire involving punctured batteries and extinguished with water requires a hazmat cleanup?

        I’ll try to find out next time I service my customer but for now maybe someone here knows?

        I know Panasonic and others are replacing these electrolytes with some kind of solid state technology but as far as I can discover by googling indicates that Musk’s “secret sauce” electrolyte is still a fairly common one with something added to increase it’s effectiveness.

  • avatar

    Tragic accident that proves nothing with regard to the safety or otherwise of EV technology.

    What it does demonstrate though is that the outrageous (Tesla call it Ludicrous or insane) amounts of power in the hands of someone not trained to handle it is a very dangerous thing.

    Tesla may find itself having to put acceleration and speed governors on their vehicles. A Tesla in the hands of Mr Average driver is like a deadly weapon.

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      The same could be said for any car with a certain amount of power.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      A Ford Aspire automatic 5 door is a “deadly weapon” in the hands of an idiot.

      Just because the Model S is faster than a lot of cars is not the issue here. Porsche cars are fast. Hellcats are fast. 350GTs are fast. There are no shortage of ways to obtain crazy levels of power/acceleration, especially at $50k+, and the Tesla costs twice that. These idiots could’ve easily put themselves in the same danger driving any number of high-performance cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      The difference is that the fires are difficult to put out. Fire crews can’t do much.

      It’s fortunate that the fire didn’t spread. That isn’t usually a concern with a car fire.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      “Tragic accident that proves nothing with regard to the safety or otherwise of EV technology”

      true, and Mark’s explanation above lends support to this. This kind of collision with an ICE car would also have been just as disastrous and almost certainly with a sizable fire.

      but it does show some interesting contrasts:

      1) had this been a car with a gas tank, the contents of the tank would have been spewed out all over the place. and with this violent a collision, something surely would have ignited the gas and probably set fire to a bunch of other things. Such as nearby trees, houses, etc. In this case, the fire was limited to the battery itself, and exploding cells burned themselves out in a manner of seconds.

      2) it shows one of the challenges for fire/rescue departments; they may not be trained or have the equipment to deal with a large lithium battery fire. Similar to the early days of hybrid cars with high-voltage batteries, it’ll get figured out. Watching the video, it seems like the approach they took is that anything burning is going to continue to burn, so just throw water on it to cool it down and stop further cells from overheating and igniting. seems to have worked.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    I’m almost willing to entertain the notion of divine protection for the rest of us as Teslites find ways of killing only themselves with their Muskmobiles.

  • avatar
    pragmatic

    Of course my brother, early in his career with the FDNY, witnessed what happens when you try to putting out a microbus engine fire on the BQE with water. o get some idea watch this video of a shed with a Beetle. Skip to 44 seconds in:

    youtube.com/watch?v=t_HJgLgEfM8

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Jeez, I guess we’ve never seen a gasoline fire after a car crash. Whenever there’s a car crash, even without a fire, it’s routine for the fire department to be called to “wash gasoline” which goes into the nearby creeks, storm sewers, what have you.

    If memory serves, the legendary VW Beetle had an engine block that was made out of magnesium (to save weight) which burns very nicely if you get it good and hot. Of course, the gasoline was carried safely far away . . . above the front passenger and driver’s legs. :-)

  • avatar
    jalop1991

    1) Model S
    2) 1 a.m.
    3) debris field 150 yards long

    “Ludicrous mode? Here, hold my beer, watch this.”

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      This was right after the World Series game wrapped up (lotsa Cubs fans in Indiana).
      That might have some connection relative to alcohol and exuberance.
      It also rained pretty hard in the hour previous.

      No estimate of the speed but they hit a very stout tree trunk, and the individual batteries were spread out over a very large area. The impact forces had to be enormous.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      Don’t forget that the driver of the Tesla was a 45 year old guy with a 27 year old female passenger…at 1am. How many stereotypes does this scenario confirm?

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    Still waiting for TTAC to cover the story about the guy who had a heart attack and his Tesla autopiloted him to the hospital.

    I know, there’s no video of firecrackers.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    One more reason I will never buy a car with electronic touch sensitive door handles. How do you get out of the damn thing when the power system fails after the batteries are flung all over the place? Some technology is just bone headed overkill stupid.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    I read this article earlier in the week when it first came out, then got a surprise of sorts when I watched a program on the Science Channel called “Outrageous Acts of Science”. According to that program, water, specifically, can in itself cause lithium to ‘explode’, so using water to suppress these lithium fires in this crash actually exacerbated the problem for rescuers whereas a simple steel-bladed snow shovel might have made it possible to approach the car and extract the victims.

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