The auto industry has already spent hundreds of billions of dollars researching, developing and implementing its transition to battery-electric propulsion, but it needs to dedicate a bit more to mitigate a growing and stubborn problem with its new products: fire.
It's not that EVs are more prone to catching fire than their internal combustion-powered counterparts — they aren't. The problem is that, unlike the more common fires in internal combustion vehicles, EV fires are exponentially hotter and more difficult to extinguish. The industry has already seen the calamitous results when EVs catch fire, as occurred last year in the Felicity Ace disaster. On land, these incidents regularly tie up fire crews for hours as overheated battery cells continue to reignite, even after being doused with tens of thousands of gallons of water and seemingly ineffective firefighting foam.
In one instance last year, firefighters in Sacramento, Calif., eventually resorted to submerging a burning Tesla Model S in a freshly dug pit filled with thousands of gallons of water to finally extinguish the stubborn blaze and keep it from reigniting. It really should never take a tractor and an improvised pond to render a dangerous vehicle inert.
This is where automakers, and especially their battery suppliers, need to step up. Much more funding is needed to research safe, effective and efficient ways to extinguish battery fires in EVs, and then to spread the fruits of that research to firefighters globally. The industry must also redouble its own efforts to ensure battery fires don't start in the first place by making these new products safer.
We take some solace in the work that's already been accomplished. One example, highlighted last week, saw engineers at Detroit supplier Teijin Automotive Technologies redevelop an advanced material used in aerospace, called phenolic, to create flame-retardant battery enclosures. That's some nice work, but much more needs to be done.
Whether it requires developing advanced firefighting strategies and equipment, the alteration of the vehicle battery pack to rapidly cool and suffocate fires before they grow, or both, it is the auto industry's responsibility to crack this nut while EV market share remains relatively low.
Firefighters around the world, and the taxpayers who fund them, deserve nothing less.