Electric cars are gaining momentum worldwide. Popular brands like Tesla are leading the way, and it’s fast becoming the go-to fuel alternative.
But are electric cars safe? What about if there’s a fire? Do they have the same protection in crashes?
If you’re considering getting an EV, these questions make sense. It’s okay to be unsure about something relatively new. Sensible, even.
This guide will answer all these questions (and much more).
Let us get started!
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What Different Types Of EVs Are There?
An electric vehicle is powered solely by, you guessed it, electricity. As such, hybrids are excluded from this category.
While electric vehicles are all driven by electricity, the source differs from car to car.
Here are a few of the most common methods:
- Battery – the principle of batteries is simple. They store chemical energy, ready for conversion into electrical whenever necessary. Batteries are usually recharged at the plug, although some cars might have a mild energy recovery system (ERS).
- Hydrogen fuel cell – brands such as Toyota, GM, and Honda have embraced hydrogen more wholeheartedly than most others. A hydrogen fuel cell converts pure hydrogen into an electron flow through an oxygen reaction.
The only waste product is water. It’s probably the most future-proof strategy out there since there is no need for mining the rare, expensive metals needed for batteries. However, much more investment is required if we’re ever to see it on a grand scale.
Potential Near-Future Developments
- Supercapacitor – the technology doesn’t yet exist, but manufacturers are pouring money into these. So far, supercapacitors are only used in MHEV hybrids (see below). They aren’t effective enough to be the sole source of power for an EV. Like batteries, capacitors store energy, ready for release whenever necessary.
So far, they’re far too expensive and inefficient to replace batteries or fuel cells, but who knows?
What About Hybrids?
Hybrids can include electric motors working with an engine in three ways:
- HEV (Hybrid Electric Vehicle)
- MHEV (Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicle) – usually a standard car with a hybrid system. Batteries kick in to assist acceleration or slow driving.
- PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle)
Is Any Type Of EV Safer Than The Others?
Battery-powered (BEVs) and fuel cell-powered (FCEVs) electric vehicles produce electricity using different methods. Nevertheless, they function based on identical principles. Electrical systems always entail certain risks, yet neither hydrogen nor batteries pose a greater or lesser level of danger compared to one another.
Battery-powered EVs come with the risk of igniting electrical fires. Hydrogen fuel cell-powered EVs can explode if the cell is badly ruptured.
The safest type of EV – with fire risk being the main factor – would be one powered by supercapacitors. Capacitors are a remarkably safe way to store electrical energy with minimal fire risk. Provided the rest of the car is efficiently designed, the potential for fire is low.
Unfortunately, the technology doesn’t exist yet. Even when it does, don’t expect to see it on regular cars for a long time. Decades, probably. Keep your eye out, though.
What Are The Risks Of Electric Cars?
Before delving into the risks associated with electric cars, remember that “normal” cars aren’t exactly risk-free.
For example, pollution and exhaust fumes are deadly. Gasoline is highly flammable, and diesel can also catch fire. They’re also only as good as the manufacturer makes them.
Electric cars can be more dangerous to work on due to the risk of electric shocks. You might consider this a new thing… but it isn’t.
The danger of receiving a fatal electric shock from an ICE vehicle is genuine. The problem comes from the higher voltages, driving these high currents through you far more easily. Caution is essential.
Other than the risk of electric shock and electrical fires, EVs are no more or less dangerous than other cars.
Electric Car Safety: Crash Fire Risk
A primary concern of readers is how safe an electric car is in a crash. For example, will it start an electrical fire if the batteries rupture and spark? Or will electricity somehow flow through everything, including you?
Electrical fires in a crash are possible but very unlikely. For a start, the batteries are well protected and encased, so it’ll take a significant impact to break them open. However, if the coolant leaks, it could overheat and catch fire.
Electrical fires are complicated to put out, even for professionals. They’re tricky because you can’t use water or foam (the current will travel through it and electrocute you). The fire can also restart again and again, even days after the incident.
In summary, the risks of fire associated with electric car crashes are low. They aren’t common. But they are possible and can be dangerous.
Electric Car Safety: Spontaneous Combustion
Some cars throughout history were known to catch fire randomly. These ranged from standard daily drivers to modern supercars.
Most incidents of spontaneous combustion were caused by faulty wiring of some kind. Electrical components overheating can cause an electrical fire. They don’t need to spark.
This is far from a problem limited to EVs! One of the most common causes of fires in any car is water ingress into permanently powered electronic boxes, causing short circuits and fires due to dendrite growth.
Manufacturers spend a long time trying to eliminate the risk of lithium battery fires. Between each electrode, very thin electrodes are required. Copper or lithium dendrites can form and pierce these membranes.
Therefore, design defects in EVs could lead to fires. There’s no way to know in advance how well the system has been put together, unfortunately.
Although there aren’t yet statistics to prove it, it seems most likely that if EVs are to catch fire, it’ll be while charging on the mains than during a crash.
You might equate the higher currents and more wiring with a greater risk of spontaneous combustion. You might also have seen images of a Tesla on fire spread across the news.
The information is not conclusive yet. There are not sufficient electric cars to confirm anything.
However, remember that a lot of cars catch fire, no matter the powertrain. EVs might be more likely to get on the news as part of standard media hype.
Time will tell. If your car does catch fire, no matter how it’s powered, immediately pull over. Stop, get everyone out, and call the emergency services.
Electric Car Safety: Standard Crash Test
As mentioned in the previous section, electric cars perform just as well in crash tests as their ICE cousins.
They’re made the same way. For example, they’re built with crumple zones, collapsing rods, airbags, and much more. These protect the occupants and any pedestrians.
In general, electric cars perform better than other cars because almost all are new and modern. Thus, they come with up-to-date, advanced safety aids and engineering.
If you want to check how well a specific EV performs in crash tests, look it up on the NHTSA’s website.
Are Electric Cars Safe To Charge?
Electric cars are as safe to charge as can be reasonably expected. (That is, the risks are almost negligible.)
Even if the rain is lashing down, it’s perfectly safe. These systems are carefully and rigidly designed, so don’t worry. They’re even safe in thunderstorms, provided the surrounding infrastructure has been well-designed. (Although there’s no need to be standing outside when lightning might be striking!)
As mentioned, if the battery packs haven’t been designed well, this could result in a fire if the membranes around the electrodes are pierced by dendrites.
You should always follow the instructions in your owner’s manual and the charging station. Treat it with the same respect you give to a gas station nozzle.
You shouldn’t worry about any risk to yourself or the car. Yes, in extremely unlucky circumstances where many factors line up, it’s possible for something to go wrong. But do you ever worry about that when filling up with gasoline? Probably not.
Is There A Radiation Risk From Electric Cars?
You’ll find several articles out there decrying the safety of electric cars. They talk all about the non-ionizing radiation emitted from electromagnetic fields (EMF). The main potential concerns are ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) and RF (Radio Frequency).
All electrical devices create electromagnetic fields. It’s a natural by-product of channeling electrons through circuitry.
The most likely potential harm from non-ionizing radiation in an EV is:
- Interference with devices like pacemakers
The levels of electromagnetic radiation from an EV’s electronics must be relatively low. If they weren’t, they’d interfere with the radio, the phone, the sat nav, and so on.
Most experts agree that the radiation levels produced by EVs aren’t a risk. Combustion engine cars also produce the same radiation (although a bit less). They’re hardly free from electronics!
There is an as-yet-unproven link between electromagnetic radiation and cancer. We need far more long-term studies on the potential link (which may be negative or inconclusive).
However, put it this way. Do you own a smartphone? Are you happy to risk overdosing on RF when you answer a call? Because that’s what you’re doing. Studies are still inconclusive on the effect it’ll have on people decades later.
The radiation risk posed by an EV seems to be far less than that of a smartphone, partly because you aren’t holding it to your head. Holding your phone to or near your head gives you a massive dose of radiation. It’s far higher than anything you’d reasonably expect to find in an electric car.
That said, constant radiation exposure is never a good thing. This applies to sitting in your electric car, being on your phone, and even sitting too close to any DC appliances such as lamps or TVs. You can reduce your risk of radiation-based cancers by keeping away.
Overall, yes, studies are ongoing on the true risk of radiation. However, even if it exists, it’s likely minimal and far less dangerous than your phone. You should still take reasonable steps to avoid radiation overdose (from anything).
Here’s a 2022 study on the effects for you to check out.
Since EVs Are Silent, Are They Dangerous For Pedestrians?
It’s definitely true: they are. However, it’s not really the car’s fault. People are just accustomed to the sound of their arrival.
There have been a few stories of pedestrians knocked over by a silent electric car. You might even have experienced it yourself, especially in a parking lot or slow street.
By law, electric cars are required to make a certain amount of noise. A pedestrian must be given the best chance possible to hear it coming.
As EVs become more common, people will start getting used to crossing the road more carefully. In the meantime, as a driver, you should take extra care when driving around cities and residential areas.
Are Electric Cars Safe To Work On And Maintain?
As a general rule – even with gas-powered cars – you should take your car to a mechanic for all work outside standard maintenance and TLC.
Keep the tires pumped up and your fluids topped up. Most of the rest of the work should be done by a professional unless you’re competent.
With electric cars, the same applies. However, there’s very little maintenance to do beyond your tires, headlights, and keeping an eye on the dashboard warning indicators.
All work on the electrical systems should be carried out by trained EV technicians. Even regular mechanics might find working on batteries or hydrogen too risky.
Accidentally shorting the circuit through yourself is likely to be fatal. Protect yourself by leaving it to those who know what they’re doing.
Are Electric Cars Safe To Drive?
Electric cars are, in essence, no different from ICE vehicles.
Push the accelerator pedal to increase power to the wheels; press the brake to slow them down. Spin the steering wheel to turn. Stuff you should be very familiar with!
Some things, however, are a bit different. Watch out for all these things.
Electric Cars Have More Torque
In general, electric cars have much more torque and power than gas-driven vehicles.
Top-spec Teslas, for example, will reach 60 mph faster than almost anything else. On paper, that’s incredible.
Driving at this speed takes precision, control, and awareness. You can’t just slam your right foot down and hope for the best. Sadly, getting it wrong could kill someone else or you.
When driving a powerful EV, apply the power gently. Before long, you’ll get used to the traction control system and how the car reacts.
Often, manufacturers limit electrical systems to make them safer to drive. EVs like the Nissan Leaf might spring to mind. Electric but slow.
While getting to 60 mph as fast as possible might appeal to your inner Dom Toretto, it’s far too much for most people. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
What About Engine Braking?
When you press the brake pedal in a car, engine braking plays a significant part in slowing you down. Without it, your stopping distance would be considerably longer.
Engine braking is internal resistance within the cylinders and crankshaft. As a result, it naturally slows itself down.
EVs, of course, have no engine. So there’s no engine braking. Instead, electric cars are installed with other opposing torque forces.
Although every manufacturer designs cars differently, most EVs have some kind of ERS. That is, they start generating electricity when you aren’t accelerating hard. The opposing rotational force from an alternator creates an effect like engine braking.
You might find that driving an electric vehicle feels different under brakes. It’s usually even more effective than engine braking, though.
When you start driving a new car, take your time to get to know it. This will mean you’re best prepared for all possible situations.
Do Electric Cars Have Lights And Mirrors?
Electric cars are safely outfitted with everything you legally need for driving. Without it, the manufacturer would never get approval to sell the vehicle in your country.
- Headlights, blinkers, brake lights, etc.
- Wing mirrors (although some modern cars use cameras instead)
- Windshield wipers
- Crash safety components (bumpers, crumple zones, collapsible steering column, etc.)
- Seatbelts and airbags
- Traction control, ESP, etc.
- And more.
The only difference with EVs is the powertrain. Everything else is exactly the way it would be on a typical car.
Nearby Charging Facilities
Electric car charging facilities are springing up around the country and the world. Although the pace of installation is increasing, you must still carefully plan long trips.
Range anxiety is real with EVs, and it’s not without reason. Finding a charging station in time can be stressful! Otherwise, you’ll come to an undignified halt on the highway.
The range aspect plays into safety on long trips. For example, if you want to take your Tesla across the southwestern deserts, are there enough places to charge it? What if one of them is closed or broken?
There are more and more places you can charge an electric car. There are far more gas stations, though. You should always consider this when taking a long, unknown journey.
Exhaust Emissions: Pollutants And Carbon Monoxide
Let’s address these one at a time. First, pollutants.
The resultant emissions of an electric car are (according to the people who want you to buy them) nothing. In hydrogen fuel cell models, the only output is water.
This makes the car much friendlier to pedestrians walking past your car. It’s also kinder to anyone who might usually breathe in exhaust fumes, like mechanics or other drivers around you in traffic.
However, “zero emissions” isn’t wholly accurate. Actually, a battery electric car’s total emissions are estimated to be less than a gas-powered model… but still far from “nothing.”
Where does the electricity originate? Naturally, it may be a renewable source, but most likely it’s fossil fuels.
Where does the battery come from? Mining precious metals across third-world areas of the planet.
How are the batteries constructed? In factories before being shipped around the world to the manufacturer.
And so, you see, while electric cars offer a light at the end of the tunnel, we’re still some distance from it. As a driver, you might cough less. But the people who live near the battery-producing factories and mines? Life’s not so good for them.
Usually, carbon monoxide isn’t an issue. Provided you’re driving outdoors, and carbon monoxide won’t be inhaled in dangerous quantities.
In a few instances of heavy, standstill traffic, people have been known to get a mild dose of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Electric cars don’t produce carbon monoxide, reducing these risks to nothing.
Another advantage is being able to run an electric car indoors. This might be helpful in winter, for example. You can get the heater going while the car’s parked in your garage. Mechanics also don’t need to worry about exhaust extractors.
Electric cars are just as safe as regular vehicles. Actually, according to early reports, they’re marginally safer!
New cars include safety assists like automatic braking, lane adjustment, blind spot sensors, and much more. While not everyone’s a fan, these undeniably reduce accident numbers.
As such, modern cars often get better safety ratings than older ones. Most EVs are new, so it follows that they’re – on average – safer. That is, compared to ICE cars of all generations.
This guide has been a comprehensive guide to many safety implications associated with EVs.
In summary, drive them carefully and take most problems to a trained mechanic. Use the safety assist programs if applicable. You’ll rarely find yourself in a risky situation.
In the unlikely event of a crash or fire, get everyone out and call for emergency help. It might sound off-putting, but this advice is no different from any other car.
Finally, the lack of (direct) pollutants means EVs are safer for pedestrians and other drivers.
Today, it’s just about becoming financially worthwhile to buy an electric car. It’s ultimately your decision, but don’t let safety concerns tip the scales either way.