We forget, but gasoline is a highly flammable, dangerous material. We are so familiar with gas powered cars in our everyday lives that we take the safety precautions for granted. There is a good reason “No Smoking” signs are required around large gas tanks. The dangers of freak gasoline fight accidents at the pump are so well known that they are common movie tropes, but it’s probably not on your mind when you go to fill up your tank.
Similarly, once we get familiar with lithium-ion technology, it will be second nature to take the necessary precautions to avoid hazards and use them safely.
To start with, there are a few things you definitely don’t have to worry about with electric vehicles:
False: Your EV will leave you stranded in cold weather
You may have noticed your phone slowing down if the temperature dips below freezing. The same effect happens in electric vehicles. The chemical and physical reactions in the battery slow down at low temperatures. Unlike internal combustion engines, which generate copious amounts of waste heat that can be redirected to warm the passenger cabin, electric vehicles rely on batteries to produce all their heat. So, it takes a bit of energy to keep the driver warm in winter and this translates into temporary reduction in range. Estimates of cold weather range loss vary depending on the vehicle make and model, from about 5% to 32%. The good news is this loss is temporary with no long term effects on the battery.
The better news is that even a partially charged EV will have enough juice to keep you safe and warm in hours and hours of terrible winter traffic.
Many electric cars even offer “camping” settings that keep the cabin warm and secure for protracted stays.
False: Your EV will leave battery waste floating in space
There are some concerns that when EV batteries “die” they’ll join our ever growing problem of space junk, or wind up cluttering our environment - making electric vehicles less “green” than they seem. Pretty much everyone has had a cell phone battery fail before its time, so, at first glance, it makes sense that EV batteries might also be destined for a short life. Fortunately, EV batteries are built to last. Manufacturers guarantee them for at least eight years or 100,000 miles, but seem to last much longer, especially as technology improves. Once the battery has finished its time in a car, it can be reused and repurposed. A “dead” battery holds up to 80% of its original charge and can be used to store solar or wind power and to help support the electrical grid. While lithium-ion battery recycling is not yet as efficient as it can be, up to 80% of a lithium-ion battery's components can be recycled. By 2050, recycled materials could supply 45–52% of cobalt, 22–27% of lithium, and 40–46% of nickel for U.S. electric vehicles.
There’s room for improvement, but with advances in technology and processing, lithium-ion batteries can be recycled, meaning they won’t end up in the junk heap.
False: Your EV is likely to explode in a crash
You may have seen viral posts on social media warning of catastrophic, explosive electric vehicle collisions. This is fear mongering.
Electric vehicles are actually less likely to explode or combust after a collision than gas cars.
Furthermore, all electric vehicles must meet the same safety standards as conventional vehicles, and have a special disconnect for the high voltage battery in the event of a crash or short circuit. It’s never great to be involved in a vehicle collision, but your electric vehicle is probably not going to explode.
So what are the real dangers of lithium-ion batteries?
While electric vehicles are much less likely to cause fires than gas powered vehicles, there are fire safety risks associated with lithium-ion batteries. Two of these have made headlines recently and we want to separate the rumor from the truth.
The biggest concern with lithium-ion batteries is thermal runaway. Lithium-ion batteries contain multiple cells connected together in a module. When a battery cell short-circuits, it begins to heat up, and the heat bleeds into the cells around it. Left unchecked, the reaction can lead to ignition of the cells and, under the right conditions, an explosion of flammable gasses. Thermal runaway was the cause of the Samsung Galaxy Note7 recall in 2016 and is the reason aerospace companies and the FAA won’t let you keep devices with lithium-ion batteries in your checked luggage.
Again, it’s important to remember, in terms of fire risk, electric vehicles are much safer than cars with internal combustion engines. Out of every 100,000 cars sold, there will be 1,530 fires in gasoline cars and only 25 fires in electric cars. The risk of thermal runaway is low.
However, electric vehicle fires can be difficult for first responders to manage as the lithium-ion batteries generate their own heat and oxygen. Firefighters cannot suppress the blaze with firefighting foam. Instead, they need to cool the battery with water. This is partially why lithium ion battery fires get so much press.
Real Danger: EVs Submerged in Salt Water
Certain conditions can increase the risk of a thermal runaway event. One of them is if the car is submerged in salt water. After Hurricane Ian, there were multiple thermal runaway events in Florida. Electric vehicles that were flooded with saltwater short-circuited and caught fire. These fires affected only a fraction of electric vehicles in the area (only 0.04% in one county). While there was a lot of news coverage about the EVs that were affected, remember: no vehicle is roadworthy after saltwater flooding, regardless of how it is powered. If your electric vehicle is ever flooded, you should not attempt to drive it or even turn it on. Call a local fire department to ask advice and have the car towed to an outside location away from your home.
Real Danger: Unsafe Charging and Storing
A more common issue than fires in electric cars are fires in electric bikes or scooters. This has been a topic of much conversation in New York City, where delivery people rely heavily on these short range transit options.
The lack of garages and driveways in New York means that delivery drivers often have to charge inside apartment buildings. Sometimes, there are multiple e-bikes or e-scooters charging in one apartment, as was the case in a recent fire.
The New York Fire Department is quick to point out that the trouble is not with lithium ion battery technology, but more often with the way these devices are charged or stored.
Fortunately, there are easy steps e-mobility users can take to reduce the risk.
Only use batteries that have been certified by UL Solutions or another safety agency and make sure you get it checked if there is any damage or impact to the battery. Only use compatible chargers that have been recommended by the manufacturer and that don’t show any signs of wear or tear. Don’t leave your devices or electric bikes charging unattended or overnight, keep your batteries at room temperature and away from flammable objects, and always store your electric bike away from windows or doors to avoid blocking exits in the event of an emergency. Finally, using refurbished or second hand batteries in e-mobility devices is discouraged, especially when they are stored inside. There is no way to tell if the batteries are in good repair.
Ultimately, very few lithium-ion batteries catch fire, whether they are in an electric car, an electric bike, or a cell phone. As more and more of our devices are powered by lithium-ion batteries, we all need to make sure we stay up to date on the best safety practices. Just like we know there are risks to gasoline cars and to handle them with care when we see signs of damage, we need to familiarize ourselves with the real risks of EVs and take practical steps to stay safe. With knowledge and care, you can trust your electric vehicle’s lithium-ion battery is incredibly safe.
Written by River James, a writer, editor, and researcher based in San Diego, California.