Electric vehicles have historically received a bad reputation for concerns around safety. Issues like thermal runaway, electrocution, and reports of inextinguishable fires plagued the pioneering electric vehicles.
With the introduction of the Clean Car Discount in 2022, the skyrocketing prices of petrol and diesel across the country, and the increasing number of EVs available in New Zealand, we are seeing more EVs on our roads than ever before.
Growing popularity means more Kiwis want accurate information about the safety risks associated with EVs in New Zealand.
We investigated some of the most common questions and concerns about the dangers of owning and driving an EV and how they compare to internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) in terms of safety.
Here’s what we discovered.
WHAT EV MYTHS HAVE WE COVERED?
Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle (ICEV) and Electric Vehicle (EV)
Throughout this article, we’ll refer to ICEVs and EVs; here’s a quick breakdown explaining the difference between the two.
Petrol and diesel vehicles both use internal combustion engines (ICEs). A battery electric vehicle (BEV) uses an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. These vehicles use large traction battery packs to power the motor. Because EVs run on electricity, the vehicle emits no exhaust from a tailpipe and does not contain the typical liquid fuel components in ICEVs. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) contains both an electric powertrain and an internal combustion engine.
EV MYTH ONE:
EVs catch fire more than petrol cars
All motorised vehicles pose some fire risk, and EVs are no exception. However, research firms have confirmed that compared to internal combustion engines, which have a 1.5% danger of igniting, EVs only have a 0.03% chance.
Many people have an exaggerated perception of the fire risks of EVs because they use lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries produce harmful fluoride gas when on fire, burn for longer, and are more difficult to put out than fossil-fueled fires.
So, how do EVs keep you safe from fire hazards?
Most EVs have extensive safety systems
Safety systems in plug-in hybrid and electric cars automatically shut the power off and isolate the battery when a collision or short circuit is detected, lowering the likelihood of a fire.
EVs also have battery management systems that maintain the correct operating temperatures and control how fast batteries charge and discharge to keep you safe.
What about the electrolyte in the battery?
The electrolyte in EV batteries enables lithium-ion movement between cathode and anode, extending battery lifespan and improving cell performance. It plays a pivotal role as one of the four major components of a battery.
Although lithium-ion electrolyte is an extremely flammable material, manufacturers have addressed the fire risk by dividing the battery into small cells with separate firewalls. This helps isolate fires to delay spreading to neighbouring components.
Some engineers are now making less risky electrolytes that are significantly less flammable and produce fewer harmful chemicals.
So is an EV less flammable than a petrol car?
Because ICEVs are operated with a mixture of flammable fuel and hot oils, they pose a major fire risk.
Unlike ICEV fires, which often erupt immediately when petrol or diesel is ignited, EV fires take much longer to gain momentum, so there is more time after the initial crash for passengers and drivers to evacuate the vehicle and surrounding area, reducing the likelihood of injuries or fatalities.
In fact, EVs have just 25.1 fires per 100,000 sales. This is strikingly lower than 1,528 ICE fires per sale.
Learn more about gas vs. electric car fires here.
THE BOTTOM LINE
No matter how it is powered, the fire risk for any vehicle will never be zero. While the lithium-ion battery in an EV can present a significant fire hazard if damaged, the fire risk is actually much lower on average than with ICEVs.
EV MYTH TWO:
I can get electrocuted driving my EV
All cars have batteries and electric systems; even so, they don’t short out or shock anyone. Essentially, the risk is no greater in an EV than in an ICE.
Plug-in and fully electric cars operate between 200 and 800 volts. While manufacturers take care to mark high voltage wires carefully, and only professionals should be working on open batteries, these batteries can become damaged in a car accident (just like any car component in a crash).
EV electrical circuits are just as safe as diesel and petrol cars
All electrical components of an EV are fully protected, so there is no risk of electric shock, even in car washes, floods, and when charging in the rain.
The only partial risk comes from the thermal runaway phenomenon. However, this issue can be managed if not mitigated entirely. Volvo and other automakers have been developing sealed and insulated batteries to further prevent some instances of thermal runaway.
Drive batteries are installed with crash safety in mind
The drive battery in most EV models, such as the SKODA ENYA iV, is installed in the car’s underbody, protected against deformation.
The high voltage system on board also does not impose any increased risk in the event of an accident; the electrical components are automatically disconnected from the battery within milliseconds of a collision. The driver, passengers, and emergency personnel are thus protected from potential electric shocks.
The charging process is only initiated once the automatic system check has detected a safe connection between the vehicle and the charging station. Much like with collisions, if a fault is detected, the flow of electricity to the battery is instantly stopped.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The high voltage systems pose little to no risk of electric shock, either while driving or recharging.
EV MYTH THREE:
I can’t get my EV wet
Water is no problem when it comes to EVs.
Consider that every car you’ve ever driven has an electrical system. While they may have operated at lower voltages, used a different kind of battery, and served another purpose from the systems in an EV, the principle is still the same.
Due to battery insulation, EVs can safely drive through water and hold no electric shock when wet. Charging in the rain is safe and carries no added threat of short-circuiting, sparks, or other dangers.
What happens if water does get into the battery
If water gets inside the battery shell, there is still little to worry about. The nickel-metal hydride used in EV batteries is in maintenance-free sealed cells, so nothing gets in or out.
The chemicals inside are also designed to form a gel, so they won’t even spill if the batteries are ruptured in a crash.
Under normal operation conditions, water can’t come into contact with the batteries. Therefore, the high voltage lines that carry the current are protected and insulated.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Under normal working conditions, it is almost impossible for water to come into direct contact with the batteries themselves, posing little to no threat.
Don’t worry about dodging puddles in your Prius!
EV MYTH FOUR:
EVs have lower safety ratings than ICE
There isn’t an electric car for sale in New Zealand today that has scored less than a total five-star ANCAP rating.
EVs have the highest car safety scores
Most EVs have among the highest individual safety scores, thanks partly to coming equipped with the latest in crash avoidance technologies such as all-speed autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, rear cross-traffic alerts, and blind spot warnings.
Most high-end models, such as those from Tesla, Audi’s e-Tron and the Mercedes Benz EQC SUVs, are so advanced that they are as close as legally possible to offering full driverless capabilities.
Learn more about the vehicle safety ratings of cars available in NZ on the Rightcar website.
So do EVS or ICEVS perform better in an accident?
Crash tests have also proven that modern EVs perform just as well in accidents as cars with combustion engines. For instance, the ENYA IVE achieved the highest 5-star rating in the Euro NCAP reference test for crash safety, as did numerous other SKODA models. Crash tests have also demonstrated that the battery pack, which is well shielded in the electric vehicle floor, remains undamaged despite body deformation.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Despite some safety issues associated with EVs, they are inherently safer than gas-fueled cars. The simple presence of gasoline in an ICE makes them principally more dangerous. Although battery packs are explosive, they aren’t as volatile as a gas tank and fuel system.
should i buy an ev instead of an ice?
Safety should be a priority for anyone making their next vehicle purchase. Thanks to technological advances and extensive R&D from car manufacturers, almost all new vehicle models are significantly safer than their older counterparts. On top of that, EVs eliminate a lot of the safety risks associated with petrol and oil and are actually inherently safer on average than ICEVs.
MORE EV MYTHS EXPLAINED
Throughout 2022, we will be releasing more EV myth-busting resources. Our second resource discusses whether electric cars are actually better for the environment than gas-powered cars, and then we will cover common misconceptions around EV safety.
Stay up to date on our myth-busting series here.