Why Are EVs Always Catching on Fire?

Jan 24, 2023
Chevy Bolt EV burned after fire.
Electric vehicle fire reports are often exaggerated, but the battery can ignite. And while gas cars are worse than an EV, data suggests hybrid vehicles are the most at risk.

Every few months we see a story about an electric vehicle catching on fire or that they’re dangerous and could spontaneously combust. If you’re planning to buy an EV, you’ve likely seen the headlines. So, are EVs really burning down everywhere, and are they at a greater risk of catching fire? It’s complicated, but the answer is no.

At this point, most people are well aware of the fire troubles Chevrolet faced with its Bolt EV line, which it eventually recalled for over a year. Plus, that’s just one of many examples if you do a quick Google search.

Electric vehicles are exciting, new, and vastly different than regular internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. However, battery fire fears have accompanied the rise of EVs as a whole. So, below we’ll talk about why it’s happening, the frequency, how regular cars are worse, and a few other details for those interested in an EV.

Table of Contents

Why Are Electric Cars Catching on Fire?
Vehicle Fires by the Numbers
Gas Cars Are Actually Worse
Hybrid Vehicles Top the List

Why Are Electric Cars Catching on Fire?

graphic of lithium ion battery cells.

Electric vehicles get power from Lithium-ion batteries. The same type of technology powers all sorts of devices, from your iPhone, smartwatch, scooter, and laptop, or the latest Tesla. We’ve seen iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices catch on fire thanks to those battery packs, and we’re all familiar with reports of hoverboard fires, so it’s not just EVs.

However, electric cars have substantially bigger battery packs, high-tech cooling systems to keep them at ideal temperatures while you drive, and much more, making them far different from the little 5,000 mAh battery in your phone.

Battery packs store tons of energy in a small space, and EVs drain the battery rapidly. As a result, EV battery packs can get quite hot. However, cooling systems keep everything in check. That said, most EV battery fires are due to faulty designs, thermal runaways, a short circuit, penetration from an accident, or some other kind of failure.

The Chinese EV maker Nio said its fires were due to a short circuit. As for the Chevy Bolt EV, GM explained that “GM and LG have identified the presence of two rare simultaneous defects, found in the same battery cell, made during the module manufacturing process.” Stating the problem is a torn anode tab and folded separator within the battery module.

Without getting into too many details, it sounds like the Chevy Bolt EV lithium-ion battery problem eventually led to two cells touching each other, a short circuit, leading to fire risks.

Vehicle Fires by the Numbers

All current Tesla models lined up

Current estimations suggest that only around one percent of the over 260 million vehicles on the roads in America are electric. Obviously, many more gasoline-powered vehicles are catching on fire than EVs. Comparing an ICE car to EVs is difficult, but EV fires aren’t as common as you probably think.

And while we can’t compare the two easily, an insurance company Auto Insurance EZ and a slew of researchers gathered all sorts of fire data from the Bureau of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to paint a better picture.

The company compared the number of fires per 100,000 gas-powered vehicles sold with the number of EVs sold, and the results are quite interesting.

Car fires statistics report.

According to their research, gasoline-powered (ICE) vehicles catch on fire far more often than electric vehicles. In fact, for every 100,000 cars sold, roughly 1,529 caught fire.

In comparison, for every 100K electric vehicles on the road, only around 25 catch on fire, regardless of how. I don’t know what I expected, but that number is much different than I imagined it would be. We don’t know the parameters of the study, so take it for what it’s worth.

However, it’s important to note that the bigger problem is hybrid cars. If this research is accurate, those catch on fire more than twice as often as regular vehicles. That’s frightening.

Gas Cars Are Actually Worse

EV vs gasoline

Going by the report mentioned above, it sounds like regular cars are far more likely to catch on fire than electric vehicles, and by a considerable margin. There’s a much greater chance that an ICE vehicle will burst into flames than an electric car, even during an accident. Keep in mind that collisions, whether gas or electric, cause most car fires, but it’s still interesting to see how big the difference is.

There are millions and millions of gasoline-powered vehicles on the road, and those catch on fire all the time. In a different study than the one above, in just 2021, around 174,000 highway vehicle fires were reported in the United States, according to Statista. It’s more common than you think.

Hybrid Vehicles Top the List

graphic showing EVs on fire.

Electric vehicles are the big new thing, which is why they’re always in the news, especially when one catches on fire. It’s easy to see another story and think the worst. That said, we’re all used to hearing or seeing regular cars on fire, which doesn’t garner the same headlines.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to the story. Interestingly enough, the research above suggests that hybrid vehicles catch on fire a lot, far more than you probably expected.

If the graphic above is accurate, for every 100,000 hybrid vehicles sold, around 3,474 caught fire. That’s more than double ICE vehicles and substantially more than all-electric vehicles. Basically, hybrid cars ignite the most, and electric cars are the safest, while combustion engine vehicles are in the middle.

And while that certainly sounds scary, it makes sense. Hybrid vehicles have all the components of an electric car and a regular gasoline-powered engine. They’re at double the risk, not to mention all those parts are jam-packed into a tight space.

In a collision with a hybrid, the vehicle is at risk of damaging the gas tank or the battery system. Plus, there are likely more electronics, moving parts, and threats of short circuits and things of that nature.

Any car can catch on fire given the right circumstances or during a bad accident. But when electric vehicles catch on fire sitting in a driveway, that’s when people get concerned. It’s worth mentioning that those situations are few and far between, but it does happen.

A bigger problem is that when EVs do catch fire, those fires are more difficult to extinguish. We’ve even seen reports of electric vehicle fires being put out, towed, then re-igniting later, but that’s a story for another day. So, why are EVs always catching on fire? Well, they’re not.

In closing, all vehicles can burst into flames, but electric cars aren’t inherently more dangerous. Like with any new technology, EVs will evolve, improve, and advance over time.

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