Regulation call for EV fire risk

SHIPPING companies and ferry businesses have joined a growing number of industries voicing concerns over transporting and storing electric vehicles as one Norwegian shipping line bans EVs on board its vessels.

Havila Kystruten said it will no longer allow EVs on its ships citing the consequences of an EV fire being considered “too severe.” Apart from tremendous heat, an EV fire produces substantial amounts of toxic gases inhibiting the ability for firefighters to douse flames.

The decision follows increasing global calls for improved safety procedures when carrying or storing electric vehicles.

In Australia, the United Firefighters Union Australia (UFUA) last month went public saying the Australian government must introduce regulation and public education campaigns for EVs and battery energy storage systems (BESS).

Fire outbreaks on vessels caused by EV batteries have become more commonplace, said importer of the Norwegian-made Bridgehill thermal blanket used to extinguish vehicle fires in both EV and ICE vehicles.

PT Rescue manager of fire products, Stuart Coulton, imports the blankets. He told GoAutoNews Premium that incidents of EV fires on ships include one in May 2019 when a fire broke out on the Grande Europa RO/RO ship in the Mediterranean.

Two months earlier, its sister ship the Grande America RO/RO sank in the Bay of Biscay after igniting. It is believed that car batteries sparked the fires on both vessels,” he said.

“The fire on the Grande America is believed to have begun on one of the car decks of the ship. The crew of 26 tried to combat the fire but within hours it had begun to spread to the cargo containers on the weather deck of the ship.

“Soon, the fire was engulfing entire sections of the deck, and there was little that any of the crew members could do but abandon ship.

“Fuelled by the fires below deck the flames continued to spread to more of the cargo containers while below deck, the intense heat weakened the structural integrity of the ship’s starboard bulkheads and hull.”

In March 2022, the car-carrier Felicity Ace was carrying 4000 Volkswagen Group vehicles – including Porsche, Bentley and Volkswagen – caught fire and drifted before sinking. The fire was blamed on a fault with one, or more, EVs on board.

Fears of EV fires have also been expressed by car dealerships. Mr Coulton said he was supplying a growing number of blankets to dealerships in Australia and New Zealand.

As previously reported in GoAutoNews Premium, UK-based international law firm Watson Farley & Williams’ partner Mike Phillips said in a report on EV fires that statistically, the estimated failure rate (and therefore risk of combustion) of an individual battery cell is one in 10 million.

“However, when you consider that an average EV contains approximately 7000 cells, the risk increases significantly,” he said.

“Data from the London Fire Brigade suggests an incident rate of 0.04 per cent for ICE car fires, but the rate for EVs is more than double that at 0.1 per cent.

“Although it is not clear whether EVs are more likely than ICE vehicles to catch fire, it is common ground that the consequences are potentially more disastrous and more difficult to handle.”

Mr Phillips said that in normal operation, EVs might not seem to be any more inherently dangerous than their ICE cousins.

“The world’s firefighting services, however, are finding that may not be the case when one of these vehicles catches fire,” he said.

“The component materials of the batteries mean that the fires are very energetic and traditional firefighting techniques do not necessarily work. This will differentiate the risk of EVs from ICE cars when carried on board ships.”

But it’s not just about commercial car-carrying fleets that deliver cars from the manufacturer to global markets.

“This is not just an issue for the vehicle carriage trade,” Mr Phillips said.

“With an increased use of EVs, ferry companies will see greater numbers carried on their fleets. This may represent an even higher risk, given that the vehicles will be a variety of ages and in a variety of charge states.

“Additionally, in a competitive market, ferry operators may offer charging points on board to ensure electric vehicles are fully charged for their onward journeys.”

Padtex two-piece fire blanket wrapping a damaged EV

Fire blanket importer Stuart Coulton said he had recently supplied an NZ ferry company with the blankets.

In addition to being suitable for ICE and EV fires he said the blankets keep toxins and smoke away from people and the environment and isolate the fire.

“The blanket also removes the need to use 30,000 to 60,000 litres or more of water when containing an electrical vehicle fire,” he said.

The 6×8-metre fire blanket can withstand temperatures of 1500 ℃ for 48 hours.

The blanket is pulled over the burning vehicle so the fire can be contained and eventually extinguished. It can potentially extinguish an ICE vehicle fire in 10–15 seconds, reducing the risk of the fire spreading to other vehicles.

He said that for EV fires, the blanket covers and contains the fire until it runs its course over 24 to 48 hours.

“Since lithium-ion batteries do not respond to traditional fire extinguishers, the car fire blanket is the only proven method of dealing effectively with EV fires without water,” he said.

Auto accessory group Visscher-Caravelle Australia’s managing director Terry Lawlor said the primary problem with EV fires was a lack of education. He said any business involved in the transport, storage, repair and sale of EVs had a duty of care to their staff and customers to keep the work environment safe.

Visscher-Caravelle successfully markets two types of blankets under the Padtex label that Mr Lawlor said were a proven way of containing EV and ICE fires by suffocation.

But he points out that the blankets are heavy, requiring two people to drag them over a burning vehicle, so training was essential.

“Education is also needed at the point of identifying a fire before it occurs,” he told GoAutoNews Premium.

“Before visible fumes there is a hissing and popping sound that identifies that the cells are heating up,” Mr Lawlor said.

“That is the point where people should realise that a fire is imminent and that the vehicle should immediately be shrouded in a fire blanket.”

He also said that damaged vehicles were far more susceptible to catching fire. His company markets a second blanket, one with two pieces that wraps the damaged vehicle while in transit, that is in use by car-carrying businesses including tow trucks.

“It’s not just cars,” he said. “We have sold blankets to importers of electric golf buggies, scooters and mobility vehicles for the elderly,” he said.

In pushing for national regulations and education of EVs, UFUA national secretary Greg McConville told the ABC that the union welcomed the growing use of EVs and BESSs to reduce harmful climate emissions.

However, he said the technologies posed unique hazards that authorities must address.

“New EV sales within Australia increased by 65 per cent in 2022, and with the rapidly increasing take-up of these, and BESSs, the issues are growing exponentially,” he said in an interview last month with the ABC.

“When the integrity of lithium-ion batteries is compromised, the energy they store is released as heat, known as ‘thermal runaway’.

“There’s no greater likelihood of an EV fire than a combustion-engine car fire, but when they happen the risks are huge and the consequences are enormous.”

By Neil Dowling

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