Burning down the car

"Thank god it's not an electric car. Those things are a fire hazard!"

One of the reasons a car is so appealing is that it’s a big, glossy, powerful machine that responds instantly to minor movements of our hands and feet.

But the very idea that this contract between man and machine might be broken, nevertheless, terrifies us.

Automakers know, for instance, that “range anxiety” is largely psychological. Most drivers don’t travel very far on an average day, and actual electric car owners don’t seem to be nearly as worried about it as non-owners are.

Still, an electric car with a dead battery isn’t very empowering. For a lot of people, that’s scary.

And take, for example, this driver in Atlanta. When his car fails to respond to his commands and starts spinning its wheels on an icy road, he panics, and engages in the time-honored approach of stomping down on the accelerator as hard as he can until the car does what he wants it to do:

Unfortunately, the car has other ideas, and rather than charge gallantly up the icy hill, it instead catches on fire (mere feet from a gas station, but thankfully, downwind).

I actually didn’t realize until today was that this is a fairly common thing. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported yesterday that about a dozen cars caught on fire in St. Paul during Sunday’s snowstorm, and there were 20 car fires during our last major snowstorm in December.

The cause? As people stomp on the gas and rock their cars back and forth trying to get unstuck from the snow, the automatic transmission heats up, causing a fuel line or perhaps the oil and other flammable muck caked onto the bottom of the car to catch on fire.

Granted, 20 cars is a tiny proportion of the however-many million there are in the Twin Cities. And it’s something that’s easily avoided by using a shovel and some common sense to get your car free rather than putting the hammer down and hoping for a miracle.

But can you imagine the wall-to-wall media freakout that would ensue if it was electric cars stuck in snowbanks that were suddenly bursting into flames?

Sure – electric motors and batteries can get hot, creating a fire risk. But EVs typically don’t have other major heat sources, like transmissions or exhaust pipes, nor do they carry large supplies of flammable liquids like gasoline on board. Plus, electric car makers, cognizant of the PR disaster that would come from even a single vehicle fire, equip their cars with all sorts of sensors to prevent overheating.

So, while I’m not an automotive engineer, it seems far less likely that an electric car in those circumstances would spontaneously combust the way a gasoline-powered car would.

I don’t mean to gloss over the fact that electric cars have limitations. But the fact that they’re a relatively unknown quantity is causing people to freak out over potential outcomes that their current internal combustion cars are already quite susceptible to (we talked about the panic over electric cars and cold weather a couple of weeks ago).

For instance, when Neil Young’s electric Lincoln caught on fire in November, it became “a bigger worry when it comes to consumers’ concerns that electric vehicle technology is not yet proven.”

One would think that fire might also be a concern in a vehicle that’s carrying around a big tank full of gasoline, too. In fact, every year, there are hundreds of thousands of car fires in the U.S., resulting in hundreds of deaths. But, of course, they rarely make the news unless someone’s there to catch it on video.

So the fact that an electric car might catch on fire, while clearly something to be aware of, doesn’t seem all that remarkable to me. The gasoline car in my garage right now might catch on fire, too, as could my house or even my office.

Pretty sure my bike’s safe, though…

Photo by Peter Galvin via Creative Commons

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