Electric vehicles show great promise as an innovative and fuel-efficient option for American drivers. These vehicles have already demonstrated their potential to save consumers money at the pump and help protect the environment — and they could pave the way to the kind of clean energy jobs that will help our country compete on a global scale. As manufacturers continue to develop vehicles of any kind — electric, gasoline, or diesel — it is critical that they take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of drivers — and first responders — both during and after a crash.
That’s why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working with all vehicle manufacturers to ensure they have the appropriate post-crash protocols. Let us be clear: NHTSA does not believe electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than other vehicles. It is common sense that the different designs of electric vehicles will require different safety standards and precautions. The Department of Energy and the National Fire Protection Association already collaborate to ensure first responders know the risks and the appropriate steps to take so they can perform their jobs safely given the shock hazard that a damaged electric vehicle may present, and NHTSA will work closely with these organizations to ensure that guidance for the emergency response community reflects the information NHTSA obtains.
In the near term, NHTSA is focused on identifying the best ways to ensure that consumers and emergency responders are aware of any risks they may encounter in electric vehicles in post-crash situations. The agency has asked all of the manufacturers who currently have electric vehicles on the market (or plans to introduce electric vehicles in the near future) to provide information on the protocols they have established for discharging and handling their lithium-ion batteries — including any recommendations for mitigating fire risks in these vehicles. Ultimately we hope the information we gather will lay the groundwork for detailed guidance for first responders and tow truck operators for use in their work responding to incidents involving these vehicles.
NHTSA has carefully investigated an incident involving a fire in a Chevrolet Volt that occurred more than three weeks after that vehicle had been crash tested as part of the agency’s New Car Assessment Program on May 12 of this year. NHTSA has concluded that the crash test damaged the Volt’s lithium ion battery and that the damage led to a vehicle fire that took several weeks to develop after the test was completed. That incident — which occurred at the test facility and caused property damage but no injuries — remains the only case of a battery-related fire in a crash or crash test of vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries, despite a number of other rigorous crash tests of the Chevy Volt separately conducted by both NHTSA and General Motors. In the coming weeks, in collaboration with the Department of Energy, NHTSA will conduct additional testing of the Volt’s lithium-ion batteries and will continue to monitor these vehicles — as the agency does with all vehicles on our nation’s roadways — should any safety issues arise.
• Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, all vehicles — both electric and gasoline-powered — have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash. NHTSA urges the following precautions in the event of a crash involving an electric vehicle:
• Consumers are advised to take the same actions they would in a crash involving a gasoline-powered vehicle — exit the vehicle safely or await the assistance of an emergency responder if they are unable to get out on their own, move a safe distance away from the vehicle, and notify the authorities of the crash.
• Emergency responders should check a vehicle for markings or other indications that it is electric-powered. If it is, they should exercise caution, per published guidelines, to avoid any possible electrical shock and should disconnect the battery from the vehicle circuits if possible.
• Emergency responders should also use copious amounts of water if fire is present or suspected and keeping in mind that fire can occur for a considerable period after a crash should proceed accordingly.
• Operators of tow trucks and vehicle storage facilities should ensure the damaged vehicle is kept in an open area instead of a garage or other enclosed building.
• Rather than attempt to discharge a propulsion battery, an emergency responder, tow truck operator, or storage facility should contact experts at the vehicle’s manufacturer on that subject.
• Vehicle owners should not store a severely damaged vehicle in a garage or near other vehicles.
• Consumers with questions about their electric vehicles should contact their local dealers.