A white Tesla Model S extensively damaged in a crash three weeks earlier and parked in a Rancho Cordova, California scrapyard unexpectedly burst into flames, burning hotter than 3,000°, according to the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.
The electric car was on fire when the firefighters arrived. The car’s battery compartment rekindled the fire every time it was briefly put out, the fire service claimed in an Instagram post.
“Crews knocked the fire down, but the car kept reigniting and off-gassing in the battery compartment,” the department said. “Even with direct penetration, the vehicle would still re-ignite due to the residual heat. Crews and on-site personnel then created a small pit, placed the car inside it, and filled the pit with water effectively submerging the battery compartment.“
According to The Washington Post, the department was ultimately able to extinguish the blaze after an hour and 4,500 gallons of water. It’s not the first time the department has battled a Tesla fire.
Rare, but difficult to extinguish
Like laptop computers, many battery electric vehicles are powered by lithium ion batteries, which have a high energy density for their size. But design defects, poor assembly quality, faulty software or temperatures above 130° F can cause them to erupt in flames. Batteries can also be damaged when the temperature dips below 32°.
Once damaged, lithium cells release heat, damaging nearby cells in what’s known as a thermal runaway, which in turn may combust. And since lithium ion battery cell electrodes are placed close together, they have an increased risk of shorting out, sparking a blaze.
Thankfully, lithium ion battery fires don’t seem to happen often.
Battery electric vehicles only have a 0.03% chance of igniting, compared to internal combustion engine vehicles’ 1.5% chance, according to study by AutoinsuranceEZ. According to their research, there is a 3.4% chance of car fires in hybrid electric vehicles, which contain both an internal combustion engine and a high voltage battery.
However, when electric vehicles go up in flames, their lithium-ion batteries cause the fire to burn hotter, faster, and necessitate a lot more water to put out. According to a report by CNBC, a Tesla Model S Plaid that caught fire in 2021 in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, burned so hot it melted the street underneath it.
Other OEMs dealing with battery fires
It was far from the only Tesla fire.
Two Teslas parked in a garage in San Ramon, California, caught fire in December 2020 and destroyed a home. One car was charging overnight when it ignited, spreading to the other Tesla. At least six firetrucks were needed to put out the fire that broke out in the garage. Tesla knows fires can be problematic. According to a Tesla Model S manual for first responders, extinguishing a Tesla battery can take up to 24 hours and 8,000 gallons of water “delivered directly to the battery.”
But Tesla isn’t alone in dealing with lithium ion battery fire threat in its battery electric vehicles.
In March, the car carrier Felicity Ace sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 250 miles off the cost of the Azores two week after catching fire taking with it 3,956 Volkswagen vehicles, with speculation that the blaze was ignited by lithium ion batteries.
In late 2021, General Motors temporarily halted production of its Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV, and recalled those already sold. Their battery packs were replaced with newer ones believed less likely to combust. GM has restarted production of the Chevrolet Bolt using the newer batteries.
But the surfeit of fires led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to launch an investigation in April into battery fires that have forced the recall of nearly 140,000 vehicles built by GM, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Stellantis and Volkswagen, all of which had lithium-ion batteries produced by South Korean supplier LG Energy Solution.
Is a solution coming?
For automakers, the solution appears to be solid-state batteries.
Solid-state batteries employ substantially the same underlying chemistry as lithium-ion technology, but rely on a substrate that can be formed of foams or solids, such as ceramics, rather than a chemical slurry. This essentially eliminates the possibility of fire. Nevertheless, they’re not expected to be used in EVs until the second half of the decade.