Ensuring the safety of damaged electric vehicles

Over recent years, the electric vehicle (EV) market has grown significantly, as we drive for sustainable solutions to support our green future. However, if EVs become damaged, safe storage and monitoring by workshops and recovery vehicles is key to prevent further risk. Tommy Carnebo, risk management specialist, Dafo Vehicle Fire Protection, discusses the risks of damaged EVs and how these can be mitigated to maximise safety.

By 2030, it’s estimated that, globally, there will be over 300 million EVs on the road (up from 16.5 million at the end of 2021). This comes as governments worldwide continue to push sustainability agendas to reduce carbon emissions. Predominately powered by lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, EVs also present a new kind of fire risk – thermal runaway:

  1. If a battery overheats, overcharges or is subject to physical damage or overvoltage, it can cause an internal malfunction.
  2. That can lead to smoke emissions, alongside rapid temperature increases throughout the battery cells.
  3. If not controlled almost instantly, this can lead to fire, toxic emissions (eg hydrogen fluoride, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and cyanide) and potentially large explosions.

Thermal runaway is extremely difficult to extinguish using traditional fire suppression systems once it’s initiated. And, as EV numbers on roads continue to increase, as does the risk of thermal runaway.

For mechanic workshops, recovery vehicles, commercial vehicle handlers, first and second responders, or any other business responsible for the storage and handling of electric vehicles after road collisions, the risk of thermal runaway is particularly pertinent.

Thermal runaway is also a risk for lithium iron phosphate batteries, as they burn in the same way as li-ion batteries. However, as these batteries often contain less energy than li-ion batteries, the risk is potentially lower.

The need for a new approach

As thermal runaway can develop rapidly, for example overnight when damaged EVs are stored in a closed unit, it’s essential to have an effective fire detection system in place to maximise safety and prevent further damage to the EV, any surrounding valuable assets and the environment.

Traditional fire detection systems will often only detect thermal runaway as it advances and temperatures have begun to rise. At this stage, temperature rises can be irreversible and toxic gas emissions can cause serious health risks. Instead, damaged EVs need a unique fire detection system, which will identify thermal runaway in its earliest stage, identifying changes in the carbon monoxide levels, before temperatures increase.

As EV accidents can happen on the road, meaning damaged vehicles often need to be towed for periods of time before storage, a portable detection solution is key. This also enables the system to be applied and reused for different vehicles, giving cost savings for workshops.

By using sensors to immediately detect smoke emissions from the vehicle’s high risk areas, these detection systems can alert those nearby to the risk and can also be connected to a site’s fire alarm system, alerting first responders.

This also reduces necessary EV quarantine and downtime after a vehicle collision and makes the overall work environment safer.

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