Media Feeds Flames of Fear about Electric Car Fires
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.
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 PluginCars.com 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.
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