Electric vehicle (EV) fire safety is once again in the spotlight, with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) warning ferry operators of the heightened danger that electric vehicles (EV) present to their vessels.

    The regulatory body has published a safety alert listing the risks associated with lithium-ion car batteries and making recommendations.

    Domestic operators of roll-on roll-on (RORO) ferries have been advised to plan for the eventuality of an EV fire, which are substantially more difficult to fight than fires caused by internal-combustion (ICE) vehicles.

    The authority has warned ferry operators about the risk of high-voltage shocks, toxic gas leaks and explosions, and direct jet flames.

    It warns of the danger posed by thermal runaway, whereby excess heat building up in the battery causes a chemical reaction that is fuelled by more heat.

    It says EV fires can develop in intensity quickly and rapidly reach their maximum intensity, often within 2-3 minutes, and can be difficult to extinguish – and pose a risk of reignition.

    The key recommendations put forward by the Australian Marine Safety Authority include:

    • Separate EV parking areas that aren’t enclosed
    • No onboard EV charging without proper management strategies
    • Use of traditional and thermal camera systems to identify a fire early
    • Being mindful of EVs that have been damaged
    • Being mindful of damage that could occur to an EV’s battery when loading/unloading
    • Only fighting an EV fire from a distance

    These recommendations are designed to make EV fires easier and safer to fight, while allowing sufficient access to evacuate passengers and to allow emergency services to respond.

    An additional consideration presented to ferry operators by AMSA relates to the weight of EVs.

    As EVs are usually hundreds of kilograms heavier than equivalent internal combustion-powered vehicles, ferry operators are advised to consider vessel stability with more weight onboard.

    Another consideration is the amount of water used to fight an EV fire.

    If the vessel doesn’t have proper drainage, fighting EV fires with large amounts of water can affect vessel stability.

    The Australian Government has recently published a National Electric Vehicle Strategy that focuses on big-ticket issues like increasing EV supply and fleet uptake, while plugging charging infrastructure gaps.

    But other issues are covered as well, based on hundreds of submissions from companies and research bodies – for example, the risk of an EV-related fire involving lithium-ion batteries.

    While rare, spectacular footage of EV battery fires and recalls of popular EVs due to fire risks such as this one and this one have captured public attention and led to misconceptions about how common they are.

    The issue of EV fires (thermal runaway events) has also caused concern for the United Firefighters Union of Australia, and led Melbourne-based charging provider JET Charge to call for national standards addressing fire safety requirements in the built environment.

    A major Melbourne property services firm has also advised owners corporations not to fit EV chargers, claiming they pose a fire risk.

    Recent EV-related fires aboard car-carrying vessels have sparked concern about transporting the vehicles.

    In late July, a crew member died after a fire ignited on a Japanese ship, the Fremantle Highway, which was reportedly transporting 2857 vehicles – including 25 electric cars – off the coast of The Netherlands.

    Last year the Felicity Ace car carrier sank due to an onboard fire, and although the cause is unknown, multiple EVs were onboard. All 22 crew members were rescued unharmed but the same couldn’t be said for nearly 4000 vehicles aboard the ship.

    The ship carrying Volkswagens, Porsches, Audis and Lamborghinis was on fire for 13 days.

    Emma Sutcliffe, project director at EV FireSafe which keeps a database of verifiable worldwide passenger EV battery fires, told CarExpert light electric vehicles like e-bikes and scooters pose a much greater fire risk than electric cars.

    “Poor quality, cheap light electric vehicles (LEVs) are flooding the Australian market and causing daily battery fires, property losses, injuries and fatalities globally,” said Ms Sutcliffe.

    She says EVs are inherently safe to operate and charge as long as the high-voltage battery isn’t significantly damaged.

    James Gelding
    James Gelding is a Contributor at CarExpert.
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