Media Feeds Flames of Fear about Electric Car Fires

By · August 16, 2012


A Fisker Karma caught fire for as-yet unknown reasons.

There are question marks hanging over any new technology. Microwave ovens are said to cause sterility, and using a mobile phone reportedly can lead to brain cancer, right? Yet the media has a special affection for EV fires. The risks attributed to EV ownership can take on a life of their own, with negative publicity overwhelming any careful analysis of the situation. This was true in the case of the Volt last year, as Chevrolet scrambled for answers to fires resulting from lab testing. More reports of EV fires in recent weeks have once raised concerns disproportionate to the real risks.

A Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid sports sedan mysteriously caught fire last week while parked outside a grocery store in Woodside, Calif. A video of the incident has been posted online and an investigation into the cause of the blaze is ongoing. The Karma, which sells for more than $100,000, was not plugged in or recharging at the time of the incident, according to this report by Reuters, and no injuries were caused as a result of the fire. Fisker Automotive released a statement that the fire appears to have started outside of the engine compartment and did not involve the lithium-ion battery pack.

Earlier this year, a similar fire destroyed a Karma in Sugar Land, Tex. Officials blamed the car, but Fisker argued the cause had nothing to do with the vehicle.

Perhaps the most high profile EV scare involved the Chevrolet Volt, which came under federal scrutiny after a series of fires occurred after the plug-in hybrid had been crash tested. The Volt was subsequently given the equivalent of a clean bill of health, though Volt sales suffered for months as a result of the fires and media coverage. News that the Volt was deemed to be perfectly safe barely made a ripple in the news world, at least compared to the stories following the post-crash test engine fires.

Rushing to link EVs to fires can take an almost comical turn, as this story of a burnt Volt made international headlines—it turned out to be the innocent victim of a house fire.


A fatal crash involving a BYD e6 electric-powered taxicab made headlines around the world.

Making Headlines

Even the site of a burned EV, in this case a charred Nissan LEAF, can be cause for online scrutiny and speculation. And when a celebrity’s name is attached to the story, the news can get even more blown out of proportion. There was the the November 2010 case of Neil Young’s classic “LincVolt” EV that destroyed a warehouse and memorabilia owned by the singer. That fire was due to faulty recharging equipment used in a home-brew conversion, and not any inherent flaw in how the EV was operating.

In some instances, like a May 2011 tragic fatal crash in China involving a BYD e6 electric-powered taxicab, the severity of the event is simply due to the intensity of the accident. An investigation revealed the taxi had been hit by a Nissan GTR traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour. Yet, if the taxicab had been gas-powered, it’s very unlikely the accident would have made the global news circuit.

As contributor Tom Moloughney pointed out last year, there is a double-standard at play. Every single incident of a fire—even loosely associated with electric vehicles and with no direct link between the electric drivetrain—garners headlines. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of gas-car fires in the United States every year, and even more auto recalls based on a risk of fire, but that's business as usual.


· VoltSkeptic (not verified) · 5 years ago

There already is an example of the double standard. This article, cited in both and the GM Volt owners forum site, is of a horrific crash where the ICE caught fire (and nearly killed the driver) but the Volt did not. For some odd reason the headline did not make CNN or FOX news....

The fear of battery fires in a collision defies logic, gasoline is one of the most volatile chemical brews around, its a miracle more cars don't blow up in collisions. You have to do a lot of work to get a battery to explode, and that usually involves putting power into it, so fear of charging fires has some merit, but that's exactly why EVSE's safety protocols exist.

· Stephen Pace (not verified) · 5 years ago

@Nick, I completely agree. If someone brings up EV fires to me, I always point out that that in 2010, there were 184,500 gas vehicle fires with 285 deaths:

Gas vehicles operate by using small, controlled explosions fueled by a large tank of flammable substance, so from a safety standpoint, there is really no comparison--EVs are much safer.

· Bill Howland (not verified) · 5 years ago


Not sure why you are downplaying this. I own 2 electric cars, and trust neither of them will catch fire. I've test-driven the Fisker Karma and IMHO the car is an unfinished design. I don't care if they do charge $110K for it, its not worth it. Unfortunately with many of these "early" electric cars, crappy engineering choices have been made. In the Karma, for instance, travel at 1mph causes "Cogging", which is evidence of a poorly designed/and/or/maladjusted inverter. A $110K car shouldn't do that, and so I advised the saleswoman. Heinrich Fisker has a reputation for designing great cars, so what happened here? Also, the car is HUGE on the outside and small on the inside, how is that possible? It is a beauty though.
Too many of these things have spontaneously combusted to warrant any serious consideration in my view, and I'm a big BIG proponent of EV's. Add that to the thing dying during Consumer Reports testing, and you have something thats not ready for Prime Time. I know they always blame things on the notorious A123 battery system, but then if its a hunk of junk, why keep using it? Ultimately, Fisker has to man up and accept responsibility for the WHOLE CAR.
While both of my EV's have little annoyances I can live with due to crappy engineering, apparently this Karma is just not making the grade. Lets see if the Atlantic is a better try. While hopeful, I'm already Jaded.

· · 5 years ago

@Bill Howland: I don't think anyone should downplay issues with Fisker, but I see that as more of a Fisker problem, not an EV problem. The Fisker isn't a pure electric car, and all indications for the two current Fisker fires is that something related to the gas engine or exhaust was the cause, not the batteries. No question, there are a lot of things on the Fisker that shouldn't happen, but I don't relate those to the EV camp (which is not to say that the general public doesn't--but that is something as early adopters we can all do to educate the people joking about needing fire extinguishers when they ride in an EV).

· · 5 years ago

Fisker's problem appears to be Fisker. He's an arrogant, egotistical designer, not an engineer or a businessman. A car designer is the artist who focuses on the car's appearance. Unfortunately, unlike many of us who also aren't good at absolutely everything, he does not appear to respect either engineers or businessmen, therefore, his company does not benefit from good engineering or business sense. The car does look good.
Unfortunately his mistakes will be seen by many as being problems with EVs in general. Hopefully, the excellent safety record of the thousands of Nissan Leafs, GM Volts, Mitsubishi "i's", and Tesla Roadsters will provide adequate testimony to the safety of EVs in general.

· Bill Howland (not verified) · 5 years ago


Yes, I'm a big supporter of EV's in general, own 2 myself, and therefore have a lot of skin in the game. I've seen enough YOUTUBE vids of A123 batteries that, well, I'm glad I don't own any. Another incomplete design. Maybe its a totally unfortunate synergistic combo, A123 and Heinrich. Yes, Tesla Roadster batteries are safe, for the batteries that is.. The car is basically a beer can, therefore before any trauma reaches the batteries, Ill be long dead.

@ex-ev1 driver

Oh, interesting information. That does explain 1 or 2 things, true.

· · 5 years ago

The cause of the first and second Karma fire is still undetermined, but the battery pack was not assumed to be the culprit. Not until the investigation release a report, the cause of the accident still remain unknown.

· · 5 years ago

I keep hearing and seeing reports about electricity causing fires ... shorts in the wiring to the house, faulty outlets, something called a "light switch", and so on. Better stay away from that nasty electricity. Give me kerosene lantern lighting any day!

· Bill Howland (not verified) · 5 years ago

@Chris T.

The other thing is that new-fangled 60 cycle power I keep hearing about.. Someone asked me if my town had any 4800 volts in it. I said "Its all 4800, (25 hz) except for the 60 cycle".

· smithjim1961 (not verified) · 5 years ago

Like some of you I feel the need to preface my opinion by saying I'm a huge supporter of EVs. I plan to purchase an EV or PHEV sometime next year. There are a lot of EV fans that resent the big, established automakers but one thing should go without saying: Companies like GM, Ford and Toyota are not rookies when it comes to designing, testing and mass producing vehicles. If there is enough demand for EVs going forward it will be the established automakers who will dominate the market.

· · 5 years ago

Yeah, just like the established telecommunications companies like Wester Electric dominate the telephone industry and Baldwin Locomotives dominated the Diesel Electric locomotive business. Or, if 1961 is as far more in your conscious timeline: . . . just like IBM dominated the personal computer, typewriter, and server market just as they dominated the mainframe market.
In other words, I don't believe that history supports your theory very well. The established players are often too tied down with legacy issues to be able to adapt to revolutionary new technologies.
Tesla motors is filled with open-minded folks from the established automakers who saw the future and jumped ship so I fully agree that that corporate knowledge can be helpful but it isn't clear that Tesla won't completely run over the big guys.
I agree that not all newcomers will make it, especially if they don't leverage some of what the big guys know.

· · 5 years ago

In case you missed the latest news, Fisker recently announced it had traced the cause of the latest fire to a faulty cooling fan. The problem was not due to the electric motor or battery pack, however, it's still something the company has to fix ASAP. It might not be entirely fair, but EV companies are under the microscope when it comes to recalls and any real (or imagined) mechanical issues. Seems a tad biased, since I've covered MANY boutique tuners and supercar companies that can deliver some very dubious products. Yet all is forgiven if the car has a gazillion horsepower, drinks gas, and is totally impractical.

· · 5 years ago

@StephenPace -- Well said about this being more of a Fisker issue than any problem with EVs in general. It's a bit like saying all cars with ICEs are bad because the Ford Pinto existed.

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