Unintended consequences: Electric car fires on the rise in Norway

Photo: Bridgehill Innovations
A car on fire.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are increasingly commonplace around the world. With that upswing comes the new challenge to emergency responders of what to do when one catches fire.

In the USA, which has a stock of 570,000 electric vehicles (Dec. 31, 2016, figure), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) conducts research, trains firefighters, and publishes on electric vehicle fires. In California, where the stock of electric vehicles is 270,000, nearly half of all such vehicles in the U.S., local fire departments have implemented NFPA recommendations and have developed procedures for dealing with electric car fires (Further reading).

Photo: Bridgehill Innovations
The fire being put out with a fire blanket handled by two people.

Norway now has a stock of slightly more than 160,000 electric vehicles, about two-thirds that of seven times more populous California. Electric vehicles have a 29% share of the new car market, the world’s highest figure, as reported last year at an international electric vehicle symposium in Montreal (Further reading). There’s a Norwegian electric vehicle association, a non-profit organization and clearinghouse for information and documentation on electric vehicles in the country, and in February this year an independent testing laboratory, SP Fire Research, released a report on electric car fire testing (Further reading).

Photo: Bridgehill Innovations
Proposed sign that would alert people to the location of a car fire blanket.

Research in Norway as well as in the U.S. has shown that there are two principal causes of electric vehicle fires. The lithium-ion batteries most used in battery electric vehicles may ignite upon being damaged in a collision. Internal flaws in batteries or in charging circuits may cause short circuits that trigger fires. Once started, a fire may be sustained by the heat it generates together with the batteries themselves catching fire.

Research has also led to new firefighter procedures and to new products for extinguishing fires in electric vehicles. Bridgehill Innovations, a small, newly started (in February 2014) company in Larvik, Norway, developed and now sells a car fire blanket that can be handled by two people for putting out car fires. It works by excluding air, which smothers a fire. It is designed to pack easily, as in a cabinet marked with a car fire blanket sign, and can be deployed as are fire extinguishers in tunnels, in parking garages, and onboard car ferries.

Further reading:
Emergency Response to Incident Involving Electric Vehicle Battery Hazards, by R.T. Long et al., link: www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/research-reports/electrical-safety/emergency-response-to-incident-involving-electric-vehicle-battery-hazards

“Electric cars pose new challenges to firefighters,” by Kevin Foresteri, Palo Alto (California) Online, link: www.paloaltoonline.com/news/print/2017/01/29/electric-cars-pose-new-challenges-to-firefighters

The Norwegian EV success continues, by P. Haugneland et.al., free PDF downloadable from several websites, including the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association (below)

The Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association, headquarters in Oslo, website: elbil.no/english/about-norwegian-ev-association (Norwegian and English)

“Fullskala branntest av elbil” (Full-scale fire test of an electric car), by A.S. Bøe, SP Fire Research, free PDF downloadable from Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection website, link: www.dsb.no/globalassets/dokumenter/rapporter/andre-rapporter/fullskala-brannforsok-av-elbil.pdf (in Norwegian with extended summary in English)

Note: The caption in the first picture has been edited to reflect that the car pictured is not an electric car.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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