Motor Mouth: EVs may not have sparked this cargo-ship fire, but they’re a raging inferno now – Driving

Luxury cars burning might have been the story initially, but now the worry is containing a fire caused by lithium-ion batteries
Ostensibly, the story was a simple money-envy morality play. Some 3,965 cars were on fire on a “ro-ro” cargo ship — so named because, unlike container ships, their cargo, cars, can be “rolled on” and “rolled off” under their own power — and, as fortune would have it, many of them were Bentleys, Lamborghinis, and Porsches. Oh, the Felicity Ace might also have been carrying a few Volkswagens, but the story had legs mainly because of the fourth of the deadly sins, the 189 Bentleys supposedly onboard always gaining prominent mention.

Then Car and Driver pointed out that the only cars that Volkswagen exports to the U.S.A. are Golf Rs, GTis, and the company’s all-new, all-electric ID.4, and the news media started treating this as something more than simple resentment and jealousy. Cargo-ship fires are actually fairly common conflagrations, gas-fueled cars no less so. Common enough — one 2008 study put the average at about three a year — that they hardly ever make the front pages.

A Grimaldi ferry carrying a whole bunch of transport trucks from Greece to Italy recently went up in flames, yet wouldn’t have made headlines — despite there being one person dead and 10 more still missing at last report — if it hadn’t been packaged along with the Felicity Ace inferno. But the news that a whole bunch of electric cars — there might also be some big-batteried Porsche Taycans onboard as well — might be aflame, well, that’s given the story legs that not even “the pain one sees at the sight of another’s good fortune” can sustain.

So, the question becomes: Is all this focus on the fact that there are battery-powered vehicles onboard warranted? Are EVs more flammable than conventional gas-fueled automobiles? Are they more dangerous?

Well, the answer is, like most things, yes and no. Recent data from AutoInsuranceEZ, for instance, says that for every 100,000 vehicles, there will be 1,529 fires in gas-fueled cars, while electric vehicles will only suffer 25 (hybrids, at 3,474, fare the worst, presumably because they have two potential sources of ignition). The good news, then, is that EVs are some 60 times less likely to catch fire.

The bad news — as in really, really bad news, if you happen to own the Felicity Ace or were awaiting delivery of a new 911 — is that battery fires are harder to put out. Much harder.

For one thing, lithium-ion fires burn hotter than conventional fires. One Tesla fire in Pennsylvania, for instance, burned so incandescently that it literally melted the pavement below it. More frightening still is that, once seriously aflame, it is notoriously difficult to contain the thermal runaway and flaming electrolyte.

Indeed, not only are electric vehicle fires difficult to put out, they smoulder with such ferocity that, even after the flames have been extinguished, that they can re-ignite several hours — or even days — after the fires have been officially doused. In one instance in Mountain View, California, the burnt remains of a Model X caught fire again six days after the supposedly-spent Tesla was dragged to a tow yard. So prevalent is lithium-ion’s propensity for re-ignition that, for many fire departments, it’s now standard procedure to dump the entire EV into a container filled with water to ensure the fire is well and truly out.

All of which makes things extremely difficult for the Felicity Ace. For one thing, as tightly packed as a cargo ship is, there are no containers available for the permanent dousing of flames. And while dumping said flaming Taycan or ID.4 into the Atlantic might seem like a convenient solution, retrieving a burning Porsche of VeeDub from the incredibly tight parking lot that is a ro-ro’s decks is all but impossible.

Indeed, the consequences of EV fires aboard cargo ships is something that’s been discussed in the transportation agency long before the Felicity Ace started self-immolating. According to gCaptain, a leading maritime and offshore shipping website, as far back as 2013, the German Federal Ministry of Transport, Building, and Urban Development had “commissioned a study to determine if the carriage of electric vehicles on ro-ro vessels increased the risk of fire onboard,” concluding that anything electric — both BEVs and hybrids — represented an “increased risk of fire” and that we should expect an additional 0.33 fires per year thanks to battery-powered vehicles.

The good news is that EVs are 60 times less likely to catch fire. The bad news is that battery fires are harder to put out—much harder
Of particular import seems to be the adequate lashing of car to ship, one study by a Norwegian risk assessment agency focusing on lithium-ion “self-amplifying reactions” — that’s scientific-speak for the thermal runaways that see battery fires burn as hot as 1,000 C — resulting from “mechanical abuse.” In other words, if a gas-fueled 911 comes adrift, the result is just damaged bodywork; if a Taycan’s lashings come adrift, it could result in a short circuit.

Seemingly even more prophetic was a Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) seminar on February 17 — “Understanding the Risk when Carrying Electric Vehicles on a Vessel” — that called for further investigation into a fire aboard the Sincerity Ace — another Panama-flagged ship — which experts now believe was fueled by electric vehicles, so that more dramatic fire-fighting measures could be implemented in the future.

Indeed, the most troubling aspect of the Felicity Ace story is how few additional precautions are being taken with electric-powered vehicles in general. For instance, the U.S. Transportation Research Board is only now studying how “lithium-ion battery fire risks are currently undermanaged in transit operations,” even though, by its own reckoning, battery fires “are far more difficult to extinguish and may be many times more destructive and dangerous.” In other words, we are only now beginning to get a handle on the prevention and containment of electric vehicle fires.

For the record, no one is claiming the fire aboard the Felicity Ace started with a battery-powered car. Indeed, the media can sometimes be a little too eager to blame lithium-ions for conflagrations; the famed blaze that cooked 16 Fiskers on a Port Newark dock during Hurricane Sandy, for instance, was actually the result of Vehicle Control Unit computers rather than the cars’ 20-kilowatt-hour batteries.

Nonetheless, the cargo ship fire off the Azores has been made immeasurably worse by the fact the fire has at least spread to the EVs onboard. According to João Mendes Cabeças, the captain of the nearest port in the Azorean island of Faial, “everything was on fire about five meters above the water line,” and traditional water extinguishers cannot be used because they don’t stop lithium-ion fires. Besides, the amount of water that would be necessary to cool down the inferno would probably destabilize the ship.

As we rush to convert the world’s entire fleet — with Germany’s Volkswagen and Porsche, in fact, looking to lead the way — to electrification, perhaps we should pause, if only occasionally, to consider ramifications beyond just reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

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