Another Tesla Car Fire Went Viral. Are EVs Actually More Likely to Combust?

Another Tesla Car Fire Went Viral. Are EVs Actually More Likely to Combust?
Image: Zachariah Kelly/Gizmodo Australia

Over the weekend, another electric car fire went viral on social media. It’s far from the first Tesla to catch fire, hence why we say another, but when these things happen they tend to raise alarm bells around electric car fire safety.

Are Tesla vehicles meant to be prone to fires? Is it a bug or a feature?

Well, no, of course they’re not meant to catch fire. In fact, Tesla has actually been busy recalling their vehicles surrounding safety issues like this (they’ve recalled over intentional design choices that are unsafe, touchscreen display overheating issues and camera and trunk issues, to name a few) but it seems to come up every now and again.

On Twitter, a Tesla car fire recently went viral, with the car pulled up to a set of traffic lights, burning with a window smashed out. The owner of the vehicle said that the doors wouldn’t open and the windows wouldn’t go down.

The video had people questioning the build quality of one of the world’s most popular car brands.

If you’d like to see footage of the fire, check out the video below.

Are electric cars prone to car fires?

According to a study released by Tesla, their cars are 11 times less likely to catch fire than petrol or diesel-powered vehicles, and that one Tesla catches fire for every 210 million miles (about 337 kilometres).

This report is strengthened by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and its decision to not probe Tesla over battery fires last October, after investigating the issue since 2019. For those playing at home, the NHTSA’s mission is to ensure safety on U.S. roads. The NHTSA is now investigating Tesla autopilot issues, however.

While it’s nice to see a car company so transparent about the fire risks of its product, let’s look into it some more.

According to AutoInsuranceEZ, a U.S. based car insurance provider, only 25.1 electric car fires happen per 100,000 sales, whereas 1,529.9 petrol car fires happen and 3,474.5 hybrid car fires happen.

A study from Battelle, a global research and development organisation, found that lithium-ion batteries were no more likely, or perhaps less likely, to combust than petrol fuelled vehicles, although they pack a bigger punch when they do combust.

However, perhaps these figures are somewhat skewed and aren’t supported by enough data. As we noted when reporting on the International Energy Agency’s international EV report earlier today, electric vehicles only make up about 20 per cent of global car sales.

As put forward by Forbes:

“Any firm conclusions on fire risks generally are not yet possible because there is not enough data to decide that pure electric cars are more prone to spontaneous fire than internal combustion engine ones, or more likely to burst into flames after an accident.”

An additional thing to consider (which we touched on lightly earlier) is the differences between petrol car fires and electric car fires. Lithium ion battery fires (from EVs) burn “hotter, faster and require far more water to reach final extinguishment”, according to CNBC.

The fires that can burn from an electric car are typically harder to put out, leading to some new technology from fire departments, like a vehicle containment solution as used by the fire service in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Although electric vehicles are rising in popularity, there’s simply not as many of them on the road as internal combustion vehicles. One of the sources in Forbes’ reporting above adds that, given the numbers of petrol vehicles on the road, versus the numbers of hybrids versus the numbers of electric vehicles, it would be “statistically irresponsible” to compare the numbers of fires between car types at the present moment. We’re probably going to heed their advice on this one. For now.