How Safe Are Electric And Self-Driving Cars?

Labelled interior of an electric car

In late April, Boris Johnson upped the stakes on meeting climate change targets.  Two days before addressing 40 world leaders at Joe Biden’s climate summit, the British Prime Minister announced a new carbon target: by 2035, the UK would cut its carbon emissions by 78 per cent, compared with 1990 levels. Not only is this the most ambitious carbon emissions target in the world, but it is also to be enshrined in law.  And electric cars are an important part of the government’s strategy.

However, following a recent tragedy in Texas, where two people were killed when their Tesla hit a tree and exploded, there are new questions about the safety of electric cars and self-driving.

Fire fighters had to contact Tesla for advice on how to put out the blaze, which burned for four hours and required 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish.  Forensics showed that no one was driving the car when it crashed, however, Tesla boss Elon Musk stated that the autopilot function was not activated at the time of the accident.  Taking to Twitter, he said:

“Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled, and this car did not purchase FSD [full self-driving].

“Moreover, standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have.”

If electric and self-driving cars are the future of the automobile industry, the public have a right to fully understand any risks associated with them.  And if known dangers are present, manufacturers could face personal injury claims if these risks are not eliminated.

The history of electric cars

Electric cars have been around for nearly 200 years.  In 1828, Hungarian innovator Anyos Jedlik created a model carriage that was powered by an electric motor.  However, the development of electricity-powered vehicles really took off in the 1990s.  In 1996, General Motors introduced the EV1, which was popular with consumers and car enthusiasts alike.  The following year the hybrid Toyota Prius was launched.  As the first mass-produced hybrid car, it was driven by several celebrities, including Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, and environmental campaigner Leonardo DiCaprio.

In 2016, the current trend for hybrid/fully electric cars took off with the release of the Tesla Model 3.  Within one week of the launch event, reservations hit 325,000 worldwide.  It is now the biggest selling electric car, with Nissan Leaf running a close second.

What is the source of danger in electric cars?

There are several safety concerns with electric cars, including:

  • Rapid acceleration – The sleek Tesla Roadster can reach a 0-60 mph acceleration in just 1.9 seconds. In 4.2 seconds, a speed of 100 mph can be achieved, and the vehicle should be able to complete a quarter-mile in just 8.9 seconds.  As fully electric and hybrid vehicles become more popular, the danger to pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users will increase, resulting in a predicted sharp rise in death and personal injuries.
  • Fire – Electric vehicles are powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. If the battery is damaged through either extreme heat or penetration of the battery cell wall, a fierce explosion and blaze can develop with incredible speed.

Why are electric car fires so intense?

Professor Paul Christensen from the University of Newcastle explained to Air Quality News:

“Lithium-ion batteries are amazing, and the reason they’re amazing is because they can store a huge amount of energy in a very small space.

But naturally, that energy will try and get out.

If the battery is exposed to excessive heat, or there is a penetration in the battery case, then you get an internal short circuit.

This short circuit causes what is called Joule heating, this is when the electricity passing through causes heat and you cannot get rid of the heat as fast as you are generating it.

Then because of this heat, a chemical reaction takes place which generates more heat, which then causes the chemical reaction to go even faster, and as you can see it’s a vicious cycle.

This is a process called thermal runaway and it can lead to ignition, or in some cases even explosion”.

However, the problem gets worse.  An electric vehicle fire will release over 100 chemicals and toxic gasses into the air, including deadly carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.  Although emergency service workers have PPE to protect them, members of the public do not.

Extinguishing an electric vehicle fire is far from straightforward.  Firefighters have two options, let the fire burn out, which can result in road closures lasting many hours and toxic gasses being released uninhibited, or to extinguish the blaze.  The latter option uses around 1,125 litres of water per minute and may create runoff contaminated with soot and chemicals.  With such a vast amount of water being used to put out an electric car fire, this dirty water can easily enter the drainage system.

Even after the fire is put out, risks to life and limb remain.  Electric fires are notorious for reigniting multiple times hours, days, even weeks after the initial blaze.  This poses a significant risk for recovery firms and people working in areas where the wreck is stored.

Final words

It must be emphasised that electric car fires are rare (although that correlates with the fact that at present, so are electric cars when compared with diesel and petrol vehicles).  Furthermore, electric vehicles are a key strategy for meeting reduced carbon emission targets.  However, with the deadline to prohibit the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles a mere nine years away, it is crucial that more research is done to make them safer.

If you have suffered a personal injury, our Solicitors can advise and represent you in a compensation claim.  Please call us on 02476 231000 or email