Here's some good news for fans of the BYD e6 and, quite possibly, electric vehicles in general.

A couple months ago, BYD saw its stock take a big hit amidst speculation about the safety of its batteries when an e6 taxi caught fire in a fatal crash after getting rear-ended by a Nissan GT-R being driven at extremely high speed. Now, a government investigation has discovered that the batteries were not the cause of either the blaze, or the three deaths.

Apparently, it was the impact that killed the passengers. They, sadly, "suffered severe damage which exceeded the endurance limit of human bodies." As for the batteries, while 21 of the 96 lithium ion phosphate cells did experience secondary fire damage, none of them exploded despite serious deformation of the battery compartment. The initial ignition seems to have stemmed from arcing that spread to combustible materials.

While it could be argued that electricity played a part in starting the fire, it must also be remembered that every vehicle holds a significant amount of potential energy and that catastrophic damage may unleash it, whether that power is stored in the form of batteries or liquid fuel.

Perhaps because electric vehicles are relatively few in number, an accident like this gets a lot of media attention and, without all the facts at hand, incorrect conjecture arises. Vehicle fires are, however, already an unfortunate part of automotive reality. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 2010 saw 184,500 such events occur on our roads, and that number is a significant improvement (i.e., a decrease) over years past.

Indeed, it seems probable that replacing gas-powered vehicles with electrics will improve on this situation even further. How? Gas stations in the U.S. experience about 5,000 fires a year.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 22 Comments
      JakeY
      • 2 Years Ago
      This is exactly what I predicted, that the fire was from the other incendiary materials in the car (the seats, wiring and interior plastics). There were people who claimed there was an explosion, but I was skeptical because there was no evidence of one happening (only a fire). Looks like the severe accident caused a short somewhere and it ignited materials in the interior which led to the fire.
      Actionable Mango
      • 2 Years Ago
      The VW Phaeton literally has explosives (tiny explosives) on the wiring to the battery. In the case of an airbag deployment, the explosives blow and the battery is disconnected from the car. No arcing.
        JakeY
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Actionable Mango
        In China, a Phaeton V6 starts at 799000 rmb (~$125k USD), the BYD e6 only costs 369800 rmb (~$58k USD). The e6 is unlikely to have as many fancy things in it (the Phaeton has a lot).
      EZEE
      • 2 Years Ago
      Can't we just say, 'sh*t happens' and move on?
      DaveMart
      • 2 Years Ago
      Many thanks for an informative and considered article.
      Rotation
      • 2 Years Ago
      I don't get how arcing means the batteries are not to blame. Despite this, I don't find it unreasonable that arcing would occur in such a violent collision. Did we ever get a final word on the Karma fire in Texas?
        brotherkenny4
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Rotation
        Much of the negativity that surrounded the batteries in EVs was suggesting that there was some intrinsic fault in the batteries (specifically the chemistry) which made them dangerous. And, because of this intrinsic danger they could never be made safe. Arcing, while unfortunate in this case, and problematic, can easily be perceived to have an engineering solution. Perhaps the solution is non-flamable materials in cars, or more rigid and electrically insulating material surrounding the pack connectors. However, even had those solutions been present in this case , the passengers of the car would have still died. This is what happens when a guy in Nissan GT-R hits you at 90 mph. But fear not, for it is much more highly probable that you will die from heart failure, stroke or cancer. You should be concerned about that, and not so much about exploding batteries or shark attacks.
        2 Wheeled Menace
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Rotation
        Anything could have arced. The motor controller, heating/cooling stuff, whatever. Same thing could have happened in any ol' car, being that the interior is basically lined with wires for all sorts of things.. thick, good conducting wires too, since they have to handle a lot of amps due to the electric system of a car being at a meager 12 volts. Oh, i forgot about the Karma fire, good question.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 2 Years Ago
          @2 Wheeled Menace
          JakeY - The battery coolant / hoseclamp recall is a separate issue from the Texas fire. It is part of a larger recall being handled by the battery supplier A123. The Texas fire investigation is indeed going on as I mentioned in my first response that the NHTSA report has not yet appeared.
          JakeY
          • 2 Years Ago
          @2 Wheeled Menace
          @Letstakeawalk The article I linked (which primarily talks about the hoseclamp recall) mentions the garage fire near the end: "In May a Karma parked in a garage near Houston caught fire. N.H.T.S.A. sent investigators to help determine the fire’s cause, but according to Lynda Tran, an agency spokeswoman, the investigation has not concluded. “The agency will continue to monitor the situation and will take appropriate action as warranted,” she wrote in an e-mail." http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/04/fisker-recalls-19-additional-karma-sedans-for-fire-hazard/
          Letstakeawalk
          • 2 Years Ago
          @2 Wheeled Menace
          @JakeY Thanks for providing a link to an article that explains what was going on two months ago. Of course, it could be completely wrong at the moment, since the article has no way of confirming what the NHTSA is doing now, two months after the article was published. The NHTSA still has not released a final report concerning the Texas Fisker Karma garage fire.
          JakeY
          • 2 Years Ago
          @2 Wheeled Menace
          @Letstakeawalk I know the article is dated (which is why I mentioned the date), but that's most recent follow up I can find in the media.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 2 Years Ago
          @2 Wheeled Menace
          ... and a quick visit to the NHTSA website confirms that as of *today*, they still have not released a final report regarding the Texas Fisker Karma fire. I hope you can see why I'm placing so much emphasis on information gathered from a primary source, as opposed to an article that is two months old.
        Letstakeawalk
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Rotation
        Still no report from the NHTSA.
        JakeY
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Rotation
        "I don't get how arcing means the batteries are not to blame." BYD is saying "the battery plate remained in place and there was no crack on it." They also say they have examined the design and said the safety of the insulation protection and the high voltage system is "reasonable". Since the power electronics (high voltage switch-box) was seriously compressed along with the battery pack, it seems they are blaming that for starting the fire (although the root cause is clearly the GTR that caused the accident).
          JakeY
          • 2 Years Ago
          @JakeY
          Forgot to add, the Fisker investigation is still ongoing as of June 4th: http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/04/fisker-recalls-19-additional-karma-sedans-for-fire-hazard/
      2 Wheeled Menace
      • 2 Years Ago
      Thanks for following up Domenick. Please do keep up the good work. Anyway this is interesting. If you can't survive a impact like this, would it really matter if the batteries went kaboom anyway? the batteries held up better than the passengers - is that good enough for you electric doubters? :)
      Grendal
      • 2 Years Ago
      Excellent article, Domenick. I really enjoyed the point you made at the end by pointing out that EV's have a significantly better track record than gas cars when it comes to fires. Which implies that all the fears of EV fires is just hype or lack of research.
      Pandabear
      • 2 Years Ago
      I wouldn't trust an "official" report from China. They have a disabled and blind activist who is "suicided" by the police, with foots on the ground. His sister and friend were detained and still not yet released too.
      Marcopolo
      • 2 Years Ago
      An excellent follow-up story on a news item that probably should never have received such prominence in the first place. The destruction of the unfortunate BYD E6 taxi, had little relevance as to whether it was an EV or not. The collision was far beyond the planning of any reasonable auto-design. In fact, the situation could have been made worse if the taxi was a conventional ICE, by the inclusion of another 20 or gallons of gasoline to the impact dynamics ! The question of credibility of an accident report compiled about a PRC manufactured car, by PRC road safety officials, is not relevant in this incident. It's true, Safety is not a great priority in the construction of vehicles for the PRC domestic market, and any investigation is going to be influenced by official policy, or corruption. But in this instance, the dynamics of the collision were so extreme and highly publicized . The official report concluded " The e6 electric taxi had two severe collisions, the rear end of the vehicle and the battery compartment were seriously deformed, and the power battery pack and high voltage switchbox were severely compressed, causing damage to part of the power batteries and short-circuit. High voltage lines of the high voltage distribution box and the body of the car short circuited, producing electric arcs which ignited the combustible material including the interior materials of the vehicle and part of the power batteries " It's impossible to not feel deep sympathy for the suffering, one man's moment of selfish recklessness, has brought to the lives of the families of the unfortunate victims. However, it's interesting that this ' báichī ' didn't just collide with the BYD taxi. The Nissan GTR, also hit, and overturned, a gas fueled Taxi, which luckily, didn't catch fire and whose driver,( thankfully) , was only lightly injured. The GTR driver not only survived, but lived to abscond from the scene ! (Which says something for the safety features and build quality of the Nissan GTR.) Compensation has already been paid by to families of the victims, (by the Nissan drivers family,) and the driver released pending a criminal investigation. The Nissan GTR is sold in the PRC at a price of One million yuan ($147,000) or more,( 20x the per capita income) with the extra cost in most large cities to insure and garage. The young drivers fate may well be decided by his families level of influence. For BYD, any negative news about it's flagship 'E6' model, only adds to BYD's woes. Despite optimistic predictions, BYD’s profit was 90% less than forecast, and sales slipped by 8.01% in 2011. Recently, BYD executives (particularly foreign) and shareholders, have been dumping BYD stock over the past month in anticipation of even worse company announcements.
      PR
      • 2 Years Ago
      The cause of this fire was an idiot who was drunk when he crashed his Nissan GT-R into another car while speeding at 112 miles per hour. Damage from an accident at this speed could start a fire in any kind of car, built by any company.
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