Electric car safety – concerns vs. reality

While being a more and more everyday sight, electric vehicles still have a novelty ring to them. And, as is the case with many novelties, they are the objects of numerous safety concerns. 

Electric car safety ratings 

Every car manufacturer runs every model through a series of safety tests. This is no different for electric vehicles. Safety ratings tend to show that electric vehicles are at least as safe as their internal combustion counterparts – be it either the same models fitted with gasoline or diesel engines, or other models by the same manufacturer, comparable in terms of size and weight. When we take a look at the actual safety ratings, we can see many electric vehicles in the top ratings tier. Keep in mind, when designing an electric vehicle, the manufacturers have to take into account all the safety considerations they would when designing a traditional car. And they do have a lot of experience with that. Brakes, headlights, seatbelts, airbags, active safety systems like stability control, anti-lock brakes, autonomous emergency braking, proximity warning, lane departure warning – all those systems have been with us for years. If anything, one can expect more refined and better-tuned versions of them to end up in electric vehicles. And all of those systems, combined with car equipment – seatbelts, lights, warning systems and the like – constitute a specific vehicle’s safety rating. And, as mentioned above – the fact that you can find numerous electric vehicles in the upper portions of car safety ratings only proves that you should feel at least as safe as in a regular car, when travelling in an electric vehicle. When looking at some test results and electric car safety ratings from Euro NCAP – the European program that crash-tests all new cars, we can clearly see that most new electric cars receive the top rating of five stars – meaning, in case of a collision, these cars protect the driver and passengers extremely well. The five-star seal also means that in the case of the car hitting a pedestrian, the latter also is protected by some of the car’s active and passive safety systems. 

Electric car safety statistics 

Still being a bit of a novelty, electric vehicles are not as well-represented in car safety statistics as their combustion predecessors. But those statistics that are available shine a favourable light on electric vehicles. The safety statistics of what cars crash more indicate that overall, the chances of causing a road accident in electric vehicles and combustion ones are more or less the same. Interestingly, in the micro and small urban cars segments, relatively fewer accidents are being caused by electric cars, while in the luxury segment, SUV and supercar categories, electric cars cause as much as 40% more accidents. Some experts say this is caused by the acceleration and braking characteristics of electric vehicles. In a gas-powered car, even a powerful one, the engine needs to rev up before it reaches its full potential. Most engines do that at a given RPM rate. Electric cars, on the other hand, put full power at the driver’s disposal at all times. Experts say the higher number of those EVs in the safety statistics can be attributed to that. They compare it to a Sunday driver getting their hands on a Ferrari and flooring it, as he needed to do in his low-power urban car. Not used to such acceleration characteristics, they lose control pretty quickly and wrap the supercar around the nearest lamp post. With YouTube as witness, there are numerous testimonies to such accidents. 

The elephant in the room 

Fire. Spontaneous combustion. Explosions. Battery packs cooking off. The car blowing up or going up in flames. Twisted, burning metal on the side of the road. Mad Max style. Although such incidents are not common, they somehow found their way into the general public’s imagination as being one of the most important electric car safety issues. Yes, most electric cars are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Yes, those batteries contain flammable electrolyte. No, it’s not easy for those batteries to catch fire. 

Spontaneous fire in electric vehicles happens so rarely, there’s not enough cases to build a reliable statistic for them. In order for a battery pack to catch fire, in theory, it would be enough to pierce one of the cells. That causes a short circuit, which makes the cell run hot, warming the electrolyte to hundreds of degrees centigrade, which in turn warms up the neighbouring cells, leading to a chain reaction. 

First of all, most battery packs are placed in a location not susceptible to twisting, deforming or crushing during an accident. Second, more and more manufacturers place their battery packs in aluminium containers that make it even harder to penetrate a single cell, and act as an additional fire barrier at the same time. Third, the battery packs are monitored and can be switched off by the car’s safety systems. Fourth, more and more manufacturers turn to liquid cooling, to make the whole system even safer. It would require a catastrophic failure of many systems all at once to make that fire a real safety issue. Even in road accidents, some statistics show that more fuel powered cars catch fire than their electric counterparts. And finally, fifth: numbers. Some experts say the chance of an electric vehicle spontaneously catching fire is about one in twelve million.