Are Electric Cars (and Their Batteries) Safe in Collisions?

Are Electric Cars (and Their Batteries) Safe in Collisions?

You may have seen videos circulating online of electric cars catching fire during accidents. Are these just rare occurrences, or are electric vehicles and their batteries really more dangerous than their gas car counterparts? The short answer is that electric cars are not more dangerous than traditional gas cars. If anything, they’re actually slightly safer.

In this article, we’ll go over the safety of electric vehicles (EVs) and compare them to traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. We’ll also discuss the safety of electric batteries during collisions, and some risks involved with EVs that you may want to be aware of.

Let’s get started.

The Safety Features of Electric Vehicles

The majority of electric vehicles (EVs) you’ll find on the road today are very new. That alone makes them very safe when compared to the average internal combustion engine (ICE) car that’s been on the road longer and sports safety technology that was required before recent laws were in place.

Tesla Model 3 Vehicles
Tesla Model 3 Electric Vehicles / Photo courtesy of Seungho Yang / CC BY-SA 4.0

For example, thicker A and C pillars, the structural components of the car that create the “greenhouse” where driver and passengers reside, are the product of updated roof-crush standards that went into effect back in 2012.  

Because EVs haven’t yet acquired enough market-share to make them commonplace, people still think of them as premium models. That gives manufacturers the incentive and the pricing flexibility to incorporate advanced safety features into nearly every new EV. Considering how important these new vehicles are for lowering automaker fleet emissions, it makes sense that the top brass wants these cars to be safe and to be seen as safe. 

The Tesla Model 3, Chevrolet Bolt and Volkswagen E-Golf all received perfect 5-star crash test ratings from the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).

Tesla Model 3 NHTSA Crash Test

Tesla, the brand most commonly associated with electric vehicles, includes a slew of additional safety features that have led some people to call Tesla cars the least likely cars to have a crash in. 

These features, which include Tesla’s advanced lane-following cruise control called “autopilot,” collision avoidance, and lane departure warnings in addition to a powerful backup camera system are all available on luxury models from competing brands.

However, Tesla’s consistent use of thorough safety features in every model produced is setting the bar high for other automakers who would like to participate in the EV market. A full set of airbags is only the beginning. 

Some of the most impressive examples of these safety features in-action involve Tesla’s “active” safety features, a component of the Autopilot package. For example, one feature ensures that when the system is engaged, the driver continues to pay attention to the road.

It monitors the placement of the driver’s hands on the car’s steering wheel. If the driver’s hands are removed, the car sends an alert using audio and visual cues. If the driver leaves their hands off for a prolonged period of time, the car will gradually slow to 15 mph below the speed limit and will turn its emergency flashers on. 

Tesla Model S Interior Screen
Tesla Model S Interior / Photo courtesy of Marco Verch CC BY 2.0

Tesla is so confident in the safety of their cars that they’ve designed a new product around that safety. More specifically, they’ve determined an insurance policy. Because of their high cost to repair, Teslas can be expensive to insure.

That said, if a good driver avoids accidents and tickets consistently under Tesla’s new policy, they are eligible for a 20% discount. It’s a clever way to incentivize what is an admittedly expensive car through the recoup in insurance costs. 

But what about the potential risks of EV batteries in collisions? Let’s talk more about that.

Are Electric Car Batteries Dangerous in Collisions?

One of the stories that has kept Tesla in the news involves the unpleasant tendency of Tesla vehicles to catch fire after a car’s battery gets too hot. In some instances, electric vehicles (EVs) have burned completely to the ground.

Location of an EV Battery Pack (In Orange) / Image courtesy of Norsk Elbilforening / CC BY 2.0

What would happen in a crash if such a volatile battery were exposed to the extreme trauma of impact? Would an EV explode and injure passengers?

The short answer is no: batteries do not make electric vehicles any more dangerous in collisions than traditional gas cars. But how is it that a battery containing so much heat and energy can be safe in a collision? 

The prospect of fire in a car accident is nothing new. You might be familiar with the oft-repeated story of the Ford Pinto, a car that had a gas tank located just so that when the car was rear-ended, it was extremely likely to spark and catch fire. At worst, it could even explode. 

Liquid fuel suffers from all of the same risks as batteries when it comes to the potential for heat and explosion. To make ICE cars safe, manufacturers have designed around the risky fuel tank and implemented systems that prevent such a catastrophic situation.

That fact is not lost on the people who design and engineer electric cars. It would be irresponsible and unreasonable to suggest that transitioning to this new power source came with the risk of imminent explosion in the case of an accident. If so, people just wouldn’t buy the cars.  

A study commissioned by the NHTSA supports the idea that electric cars are probably slightly safer than ICE cars in a collision in their current state. However, there is more progress to be made. We know a great deal more about why gasoline-powered cars catch fire than we do about how their EV counterparts heat up. 

EV Battery Safety Features

Even when EV batteries are operating normally, they still generate vast amounts of heat. Without significant cooling, the batteries would suffer from a high risk of catching fire.

To keep this from occurring, Tesla and competing brands use extensive cooling systems that use liquid coolant to pull heat away from the batteries, similar to the radiator in your ICE car. In a Tesla, these systems are designed to isolate cells of the battery that do catch fire, ensuring that even if one cell overheats, neighbouring cells do not.

Additionally, Tesla incorporates a dedicated firewall structure between the battery and passenger compartment on their cars. A recent software update has even modified the Model S suspension settings so that when the car is driving at highway speeds, the adjustable suspension raises the car further from the ground and any debris that could potentially lead to an impact and subsequent fire. 

It’s not just Tesla pushing for better safety in EV’s though. Established electronics provider Bosch recently revealed a new technology that uses highly localized explosive charges to separate the car’s electrical system from the battery when an impact is detected.

This eliminates the risk of batteries continuing to heat up after a collision, one of the reasons Tesla fire incidents can occur long after an initial collision, a scary reality for EV owners. 

Other Potential Risks Involved With EV Accidents

Just because a vehicle is electric doesn’t make it self-driving, and while safety technology is exceptional for many EVs there are certain realities to be aware of. Perhaps one of the most overlooked is the misleading name Tesla uses for its “Autopilot” system.

Multiple news stories have come about when owners who were not paying enough attention crashed their Teslas with the system engaged. The Tesla AI is good, but something like Cadillac’s “Supercruise” nomenclature could go a long way to eliminate feelings of false confidence. 

Experience will continue to be a major factor in our ability to respond to EV crashes effectively and engineer safer EVs. There just have not been as many EVs crashed as there have been ICE cars, and that is likely to remain the case for decades.

First responders are trained for and experienced in responding to the symptoms of an ICE car crash, but a battery fire requires different tactics to put out. In the future, expect to see new methods in use, designed specifically to combat battery fires. 

Ultimately, travel by car will retain some of the inherent danger it always has, even in this new era of the electric vehicle. However, cars today are the safest they’ve ever been. 

EVs are beginning their golden age with a 150-year start on ICE cars. So if you have any concerns about safety relative to the dinosaur-powered alternative, you can put them to rest. Electric vehicles are safe, and they’re only going to get safer in the future. 


About the Author: Dylan Bartlett

Dylan Bartlett, aka, “The Regular Guide,” writes about a range of topics on his blog. Check out his site, Just a Regular Guide, for more, or follow Dylan on Twitter @theregularguide for frequent updates.

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