Electric Vehicle Safety – You Get What You Pay For

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Ask anyone about the pros and cons of electric vehicles, and I’m sure you’ll get plenty to fill up both sides of the sheet. When you have to sort between the myths and the facts though, things start to get a little fuzzy, especially on the cons side of the page. Part of the problem simply has to do with ignorance, but the more we educate people, the less that will be a factor in the development and expansion of electric vehicles.


Costs – That Unavoidable First Question

We can compare two sister vehicles, perhaps three, a conventional, hybrid, and an electric vehicle. We should throw plug-in hybrid, for good measure. Unfortunately, no lineup like this exists, yet, but I’m sure automakers are working on it. The pricing scheme works out the same. The dinosaur-fueled conventional being the cheapest option, followed closely by light hybrid vehicles and full hybrid vehicles, perhaps just a couple thousand dollars between them. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are a little bit more, but the most expensive of the bunch tends to be the pure electric vehicles, by thousands, before any available tax incentives.

Running a cost-to-own comparison may take a few minutes and a few phone calls, but pretty much every one of them agree that the long-term cost to own an electric vehicle is cheaper than a conventional vehicle. If you’re looking at an electric vehicle for the short term, even something as cheap as the Nissan Leaf, then the money isn’t going to be on your side, but if you’re looking to get into something like the Tesla Model S 85kWh, with pretty much everything best-in-class, then you’d better be in it for the long haul if you want to see any returns on your money. American consumers now finance their vehicles for an average of 65 months, but many trade them any before they are paid off. If you’re going to pay the premium for an EV, you must be willing to keep it long enough for it to be worth it.

And what do you get for your money? It’s not like buyers are going to accept a stripped-down vehicle just to get an electric powertrain, so you can expect to find the same systems, and more, in an electric vehicle, that you would find in a conventional vehicle. Really, the only thing that’s changed is the powertrain. Everything else, from air conditioning to entertainment systems, as well as active and passive safety systems, are all part of the electric vehicle ownership experience.


Safety – How Safe is 400V, Anyway?

Someone asked me, on Twitter, whether I would rather dip my finger in gasoline or touch the contacts on a 400V battery, such as the lithium-ion battery packs that are found in electric vehicles and some hybrid vehicles. The answer is clear, but the question is flawed. After a recent Tesla Model S fire made some smoke on the internet, the source of all fact [ahem], of course someone had to bring up the flammability of the electrolyte in lithium-ion battery packs. Strangely enough, after pointing this out, they fail to mention various other facts.

First, the Tesla Model S 85kWh battery pack, made up of sixteen modules, each containing Panasonic 18650 lithium-ion cells, is protected by 1/4” thick armor plating, and that each module is firewalled from each other to prevent propagation. Additionally, the battery didn’t simply burst into flame, but was impaled by a piece of debris in the road, generating something on the order of 25 tons of impact force. The driver had plenty of time, after the impact, to pull over safely and exit the vehicle. First responders were able to quickly put the flames out, without incident, and no one was hurt.

Interestingly, the question of flammability has nothing to do with the fact that the battery is somewhere on the order of 400V, but the chemical energy it contains. The chances of all sixteen modules flaring up would be practically nonexistent. And what of the puncture? The Panasonic 18650 lithium-ion cell uses a paste electrolyte, flammable, surely, but does not flow. Had the road debris, a truck part, apparently, punctured and ignited a gas tank, the whole tank would have emptied, leaving a flaming puddle under the car, certain to ignite the entire vehicle.

According to the National Fire Protection Association and Department of Transportation, respectively, there are about 150,000 car fires and Americans drive some three trillion miles, per year. This rounds out to one car fire every twenty million miles. To date, the only Tesla Model S fire would make this number about one in every one hundred million miles. To recap, chance of fire in a conventional vehicle, 1:20,000,000mi – chance of fire in a Tesla Model S, 1:100,000,000mi. Judging by these numbers, and those of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, I’d rather crash a Tesla Model S.

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2 thoughts on “Electric Vehicle Safety – You Get What You Pay For”

  1. This is one of the best and realistic assessments of the two biggest questions facing anyone considering ownership of an electric car, cost and safety. The economics clearly make sense from a “cost of ownership” simple analysis. As for safety, the media delights in portraying EVs as a large battery waiting to explode. As the article clearly points out even with massive damage to the battery the driver was able to pull over and exit the car safely. With a gas car, he would have been in the middle of a fireball. A similar story occurred when a BYD electric car caught fire recently in China. The headline was about Warren Buffet’s electric car catches fire!. What the article did not mention was that the car was rear-ended at almost 100 mph and nothing was left of the vehicle including the battery!

    Bernard Fleet, Toronto

    • In terms of safety, it still baffles me that the combustion engine is successfully depicted as a safer vehicle when it is powered by controlled explosions of a fuel that is known to be more powerful than TNT. if you look at records from the turn of the 20th century, when gasoline vehicles first began to diffuse on the market (and electric cabs had already been introduced in many major cities), many people viewed the combustion engine poorly in contrast to EVs because they were dirty, loud and seemingly MORE dangerous.


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