Earlier this month, a warehouse containing memorabilia owned by rocker Neil Young was involved in a three-alarm fire that destroyed many priceless possessions.
Among the charred remains in the San Carlos fire was a classic ’59 Lincoln Continental.
Converted to a hybrid power train by Young’s own electric vehicle company LincVolt, the vehicle had been displayed nationwide as a shining example of a well-converted electric car.
But the car itself wasn’t just a victim of the fire: it is the prime suspect after a charger fault is thought to have started off the blaze
Sadly the case is not an isolated one. We’ve just been informed of a fire on the Pearl of Scandinavia - a ferry ran out of Oslo. The fire cause? A Nissan Qashqai converted to electric power by A Future Electric Vehicles of Denmark.
Are electric cars a fire risk? Should we avoid conversions? We’ve seen the destructive nature of a battery fire up-close and personal. But usually, there’s something awry which causes the blaze.
Gasoline cars still a higher fire risk than electric cars
In the grand scheme of things, electric car fires are still few and far between, and there are many more stories of gasoline cars overheating and catching fire than electric ones.
In fact, we’ve yet to hear of any major fire involving a factory-built, highway-capable EV.
But in the world of electric vehicle conversions such blazes are more common.
Poor design, not short circuits
Believe it or not, electric car fires are rarely caused by a short circuit. Just like the LinkVolt fire appears to be a charger fault, most conversion fires are traceable to an error with the charger or incorrect battery management.
Not switching off a charger when the battery pack is full is a prime suspect.
Many off-the-shelf chargers lack the sophistication of individual cell monitoring found in cars like the 2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevrolet Volt and cannot instantly tell if there is a fault in the battery.
As this author has found out from personal experience with a self-converted plug-in prius, a full battery that still receives charge has one outcome - overheating and fire.
All it takes is one overly-charged battery and a poorly chosen or fitted charger, and a fire is only a matter of time.
Exotic batteries increase potential for trouble
AFutureEV Fire - Oslo
Back in the days when lead acid batteries were the primary power choice for EV conversion companies and hobbyists the only real electric vehicle fires were caused by incorrect wiring or poor maintenance.
As battery technology has evolved from the simple lead acid cell the higher performance and longer range promised by Nickel-metal-hydride and Lithium-ion batteries has drawn more conversions away from the slow, heavy lead pack.
Higher energy densities mean greater risk, since both Nickel-metal-hydride and Lithium-ion batteries require active thermal management to prevent the cells from overheating and causing a fire.
Multi-million development cycles breed safety
One-off conversions, wether done by a hobbyist or a company, cannot match the fully tested, multi-million, multi-year development-cycle of factory-built electric vehicles.
Even with the best engineers in the world, a conversion company or individual cannot replicate an OEM development cycle. Nor can it replicate the support and diagnostics available when things do go wrong.
We’d advise a factory-built and designed EV over a conversion any day, but understand that not everyone’s needs are met by the current offerings in the marketplace.
For those who want to convert or commission a conversion of a gasoline car to electric great care must be taken to ensure that any battery packs are overly engineered, with appropriate cooling and safety interconnects.
We’d also point out that just like any other modified car, the risk of fire is much greater in a custom-designed car than a factory-stock car.