Electric cars, including those from Tesla, are posing new types of risks for firefighters because of special parts like batteries, according to a Bloomberg report published Tuesday.
When an autopilot-equipped Tesla Model X crashed March 23, leading to the death of Apple software engineer Walter Huang, first responders were faced with unusual circumstances for dealing with the aftermath. First, they were forced to extract at least a portion of the power cells so that the vehicle could be safely towed away from the California freeway. Then, after attempts to completely abate the flames of the wreckage, the lithium-ion battery-powered car combusted again, both within the same day of the original collision on two occasions, as well as six days later, according to Bloomberg.
Lithium-based batteries of all types and for several different purposes — such as personal electronics like laptops and e-cigarettes — can rapidly heat up and explode, thus causing critical safety concerns. But having such batteries in cars, which are way more powerful than in most applications, is very threatening since they are often situated or operating near other inflammable vehicles. Also, they are different than cars powered by gasoline, which requires a spark of some sort, while lithium cells ignite through its own doing (mostly due to design defects).
“There are inherent risks when you store enough energy to propel a two-ton car at 75 miles an hour for hundreds of miles,” Kevin Bullis wrote for MIT Technology Review in 2013 after a number of related instances. “Electric-vehicle battery packs are made of hundreds to thousands of battery cells, each of which contains a flammable liquid electrolyte … Short-circuits between the two electrodes in a battery cell, for example, can heat up the electrodes. If these electrodes get too hot, the heat can trigger chemical reactions that quickly generate more heat until the electrolytes burst into flame.”
Lithium batteries are composed of solvents and oxidized metals that can fuel fires and provide oxygen to an already-percolating inferno.
“It’s basically like a fire cracker,” Prashant Kumta, a University of Pittsburgh engineering professor, told Bloomberg. “You have one battery that catches fire, then the next one catches fire and pretty soon they’re all on fire.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating three separate fires that have occurred in Tesla’s electric vehicles. And firefighters in Switzerland said Monday that a fatal crash with a Tesla electric vehicle likely ignited a fire in the car’s battery. The car flipped over, according to Reuters, subsequently bursting into flames, a reaction described as “thermal runaway” or a “rapid and unstoppable increase in temperature.”
Tesla is, of course, not the only manufacturer that has been probed over the years, as General Motors’ Chevrolet also experienced similar problems multiple years ago. (RELATED: Volvo Says It Will Only Sell Electric Cars, Hybrids In Just Two Years)
Tesla did not respond to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment in time for publication.
But Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in 2013, well before the most recent incidences, that “you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla.”
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