The purr of electric cars like the Tesla Model S, the Chevy Volt, and the Nissan Leaf is enough to make any passerby do a double-take when one of these sleek vehicles passes. However, the newness of vehicles that run entirely on electric power (called “EV” in the auto industry) makes them an unknown quantity.
Are they safer than cars with combustion engines or are they a ticking time bomb on the road?
All Cars are Dangerous
It’s impossible to consider the safety record of EVs unless you also consider the safety record of the automobile industry. Vehicles in the United States kill 30,000 people every single year. These swiftly moving behemoths weigh thousands of pounds and often hurdle down the road at speeds over 70 MPH on major highways.
EV drivers must follow the same rules of the road as hybrid and gasoline-powered drivers, but the chance of getting in an accident isn’t any higher for an EV driver than anyone else. Cars like the Tesla and the Leaf get the same treatment from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) as all other vehicles.
Noting the inherent differences between EV and traditional vehicles, automakers and safety experts have gotten together several times for an Electric Vehicle Safety Standards Summit to discuss future decisions on design and safety.
The Threat of Fire
One of the biggest concerns for potential buyers is fire. A handful of fires on Tesla Model S cars caused the federal government to launch an investigation. Consumers have started to wonder whether fire might be an electrical vehicle’s biggest danger.
Car fires for all vehicles don’t happen as often as you might think (all car crashes in Hollywood films seem to end in a fiery explosion), but there’s danger of fire in all vehicles. Around 150,000 vehicles in the United States catch fire each year out of almost 250 million cars on the road.
As of the end of 2013, there were over 25,000 Tesla cars on American roads and just a handful of reports on fires. Until there are more EVs on the road, measuring the safety or danger level of fires on electrical cars is futile because there’s not enough data.
Myths and Hyperbole
Any vehicle on the road, whether it’s powered by an electric motor or a jet engine, poses some threat to drivers. With electric vehicles, misinformation is common and one of the biggest stories is that a rescue crew or driver could get electrocuted after an accident. No such electrocutions have ever occurred in electric vehicles or hybrid cars.
One concern for post-accident danger is the potential for a chemical reaction. If the nickel-metal hydride in the battery comes into contact with water, anyone near the area could get dizzy and disoriented. However, exposure to air negates this potential issue.
Advantages of Electric Vehicles
When it comes to fuel economy, electric vehicles are the clear winner since it takes somewhere between $10 and $15 to “fill” a vehicle with a charge. When was the last time you filled your Suburban up for $10?
Also, consider that you could use a slab of solar panels on your roof to charge your Nissan Leaf for free. With average gas prices of $3.49 a gallon across the United States in 2013, the lure of an inexpensively powered electric vehicle is a true selling point.
In a few years, when more electric vehicles hit the roads, safety experts will have enough data to declare EVs safe or dangerous. Thus far, threats of fire also exist on regular gasoline-powered cars. An early verdict on the situation suggests that EVs are held to the same standard as any vehicle on the road and as such provide an appropriately safe driving experience.