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Electric cars: does the battery pose an increased risk of fire?

Mobility operates 600 electric cars. Are you wondering if the risk of fire is greater than in the case of a combustion engine? Here you can find out why this much-cited prejudice is in fact misguided – and what to do if the worst comes to the worst.


  • Sustainability

Electric cars do not catch fire more often than vehicles powered by other technologies. This has been confirmed repeatedly by various specialist organisations in recent years. For example, the Swiss Fire Fighters’ Federation  has determined that electric vehicles are no more dangerous than petrol or diesel vehicles. Almost exactly the same thing is said by the Fire Prevention Advice Centre, an initiative run by the Association of Cantonal Buildings Insurance Companies (VKG). The latter also described electric cars as demonstrating a “high level of safety in terms of their vehicle systems”. 

And that’s hardly surprising: any registered car is subject to the same regulations, regardless of its engine type, thereby ensuring the very highest level of active and passive safety. In the Euro NCAP crash tests, electric and combustion versions of the same vehicle type always perform equally well. Likewise, many independent electric car models receive the maximum possible rating of five stars.

How often do electric cars and combustion engines catch fire?

Vehicle fires are rare for all engine types. The Swiss Insurance Association (SIA) does not keep separate statistics. The German Insurance Association (GDV) reported at least 12,000 passenger car claims resulting from fire or electrical short circuits in 2022, though the GDV does not differentiate according to engine type. 12,000 cases out of 48.8 million registered passenger cars in Germany – that’s a very small number. According to the German Insurance Association (GDV), claims due to fires have actually continued to decline over the past decade – even though there’s been a significant increase in the number of electric cars.

So why do electric cars that catch fire still make headlines? There are probably two reasons for this. 

  • Firstly, there are still far fewer electric cars than cars with combustion engines – and media attention tends to be focused on what is exotic and new. 
  • Secondly, if their battery does catch fire, electric cars burn for quite a long time .
  • Furthermore, pictures and videos of vehicle fires have been shared on  social media on various occasions, cited as evidence of the “risk posed by electric cars”. On closer research , these cases in fact turn out to be fires which do not even involve an electric car.

How well are electric cars protected against fire?

Electric cars are just as well protected against fire as cars powered by a combustion engine, otherwise they wouldn’t have been approved for use. When an electric vehicle catches fire, the traction battery is usually not the cause of the fire. The greatest fire risk in cars is posed by the plastic components and the tyres. Plastics are used in a whole range of different ways in modern vehicles – for insulation, seat covers, dashboards and panelling, for example. Tyres have also become bigger and wider over the years. This applies to both electric cars and cars powered by a combustion engine.

Like the fuel tank in a car with a combustion engine, the drive battery in an electric car is located in a crash-proof zone. The fuel tank is located in the lower rear section of the vehicle, while the drive battery is positioned in the substructure of the chassis. This reduces the likelihood of battery damage in the event of an accident. It is also housed in a waterproof metal housing.

In the Euro NCAP crash tests and in crash tests conducted by the German automobile club ADAC , no electric car has ever caught fire and no battery pack has ever been damaged. Even in joint crash tests carried out by the testing organisation Dekra and the University of Göttingen  under more rigorous test conditions, no fires occurred – despite the fact that the cars tested looked in a fairly bad state afterwards.

As a safety measure, electric cars automatically cut off the power supply to the drive battery in the event of a serious rear-end collision. This protective mechanism is activated when an airbag is triggered, for instance. That’s why it’s essentially possible to help those who have suffered an accident in an electric vehicle without risking life and limb.

Of course the drive battery can catch fire, too: this can happen if a vehicle is on fire anyway, or the impact was severe enough to damage the traction battery or its housing.

What should I do if an electric car catches fire?

In the event of an emergency, the same rules apply as to a car powered by a combustion engine: 

  • Keep a safe distance: You should get out of the vehicle as quickly as possible. But there is still plenty of time to rescue injured people by helping them get out of the car. 
  • Secure the scene of the accident and raise the alarm: The most important thing is to secure the scene of the accident and alert the fire brigade. When doing so, it is helpful to indicate that the vehicle on fire is an electric one so that the emergency services can plan accordingly.

Opinions differ as to whether it makes sense to attempt to extinguish the fire yourself with a powder extinguisher – in the event of a fire in the motor compartment, for example. Non-experts usually have little experience of this and the quantities of extinguishing agent people have available to them will usually be too small. In any case, you should not expose yourself to any unnecessary risk when attempting to extinguish the fire. For example, it is important not to touch high-voltage cables – not even indirectly, for example by pointing a jet of water at them, because this can conduct electricity, too.

Good to know: by way of a warning, all high-voltage cables in an electric vehicle are sheathed in orange. Hands off!

How do the fire brigade put out the flames on an electric vehicle that has caught fire?

How the fire brigade proceeds depends on the location of the fire. For example, if there is a fire in the motor compartment, the fire is smothered with extinguishing foam – in the same way as with a combustion engine. If it is obvious that the drive battery is already on fire, the only thing to do is to apply large quantities of water. If the drive battery is on fire, the fire brigade doesn’t use the water to extinguish the flames but only for cooling purposes. They will continue to do so until there are no more uncontrolled chemical reactions as a result of the heat. Traction batteries contain a lot of energy, so this process can take hours. Above all, the fire brigade must ensure that the fire does not subsequently reignite. This can be monitored by means of thermal imaging cameras, for example. In extreme cases, an electric car has to be temporarily stored in a fireproof, water-filled container or bag. This last resort almost inevitably results in the car being a total write-off.

According to the Swiss Fire Brigade , (SFV), local fire brigades have been trained to deal with the specific requirements of fire-fighting and recovery in connection with electric vehicles for more than 20 years.

Is there anything I need to be aware of when parking an electric car in an underground car park?

The short answer is no. From the point of view of insurance companies and expert organisations, there is no reason to ban electric cars from entering underground car parks. A few years ago, Empa, a research institute at ETH Zurich, conducted tests on burning electric cars in order to assess the risk they posed in underground car parks and tunnels. This was done on behalf of the Federal Roads Office. The result: the heat generated is no more dangerous than in the case of a car powered by a combustion engine. The pollutant emissions may differ, but they are just as dangerous as those of a diesel or petrol engine that is on fire. What is more, modern tunnel ventilation is capable of dealing with the emissions produced by a burning electric car as well.

What will fire protection in connection with electric cars look like in the future?

Current electric vehicles already meet the same level of fire safety as combustion engines. With regard to traction batteries, however, the industry is carrying out research into new monitoring methods. For example, complications in one part of the battery are to be detected at a very early stage and corrective measures are to be taken automatically.

The chemistry of traction batteries could also change in the medium to long term. Today, most of them are lithium-ion batteries. The motivation behind developing such alternative chemistry is the prospect of being able to reduce costs and increase range. But a solid-state battery would be more flammable than is the case with the chemistry of today’s traction batteries, for example.

If an electric car catches fire, behave as you would with a fossil fuel vehicle: get people to safety, move away from the car and call for help.

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