Electric Car Safety – Myths vs Reality

May 14, 2020


Road Safety


Jack Delaney

With Australia being pressured to follow the UK and impose a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035, electric cars are finally in the spotlight.

As the days of fossil fuel powered vehicles come to an end, it falls on manufacturers and governments to make sure electric cars are as safe as their predecessors.
So, are we moving to a safer option? Electric cars mightn’t poison our atmosphere or carry a giant tank of highly-flammable petrol, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with their own unique safety concerns.

To find out just how safe (or unsafe) they really are, we took a look at the safety concerns surrounding electric cars and separated the fact from the fiction.

Can electric cars explode/set on fire?

In the last few years there have been a handful of incidents involving electric cars powered by lithium-ion batteries. Vehicles from Tesla, Mitsubishi and Nissan have made the news for catching fire or exploding, including a Tesla Model S that spontaneously blew up while not plugged in or charging.  

This sounds worrying until you realise that this is only a handful of incidents. Fire departments in the U.S. respond to an average of 287,000 petrol and diesel car fires per year, with a comparable number occurring in Australia. Electric car fires are miniscule in comparison. Electric cars implement protective measures against fires including electronic battery management, thermal fuses and temperature-stable cell components that reduce the risk of short-circuits.

While you can’t completely eliminate the risk of a fire, research by General Motors found that the likelihood of electric components in Li-ion batteries catching fire “are somewhat comparable or slightly less than for gasoline or diesel vehicular fuels”.

Are electric cars more dangerous to pedestrians?

One of the most attractive features of electric cars is that they’re much quieter than regular petrol or diesel engine powered vehicles. But this also causes an issue – the cars are so quiet that pedestrians in suburban neighbourhoods often don’t know that there are cars nearby.

When an electric car is travelling above 30 km/h they generate noise from tire friction on the road and aerodynamics, but slower than that, they make almost no noise. And it’s a real issue. Research conducted by charity Guide Dogs found “quiet hybrid and electric vehicles are 40 per cent more likely to collide with pedestrians than cars with a regular combustion engine.”

To combat this manufacturers have taken steps to increase the volume of electric vehicles. Most notably, noise-making devices have been installed that operate when the car is running at slow speeds to ensure pedestrians are aware a car is around.

As usual Tesla has taken this idea to the next level, with an upcoming feature allowing their vehicles to actually talk to pedestrians. It’s the closest thing we’ll get to a real life Cars for the time being.

Do electric cars stop suddenly if they lose power?

Electric car connected to power source

When electric vehicles break down they tend to stop quicker than regular cars that slowly coast to a halt. This has the potential to be a safety concern, particularly on busy motorways, where vehicles are unable to avoid hazards.

To combat this potential hazard, electric car manufacturers program their vehicle’s computer to warn drivers extensively before any potential breakdown happens. This gives you adequate time to safely pull over and avoid endangering other drivers.

As a result, Transport Research Laboratory found that electric cars are “30 per cent less likely to be involved in an accident” than petrol or diesel alternatives. And if you run out of battery on the road, it would be your own fault. There are about a million chimes, bings, red exclamation points and vocal warnings that pop up to ensure you don’t lose power.

Can you tow an electric car if broken down?

Electric cars have to be towed on a flatbed. Unlike petrol or diesel vehicles, electric cars don’t have a neutral position in the transmission. This means that when the wheels turn, they turn the motor with it, which can cause damage to the motor when the system’s not working.

The good news is that each electric car manufacturer offers its own roadside assist program. For example, Nissan Australia offers five years’ roadside assistance, while Tesla offers four years’ or 80,000 kilometres, whichever comes first. These services include transportation to the nearest charging station, authorised retailer or service depot.

If you ever require a tow in your electric vehicle, be sure to specify that you need a “flatbed”, not a traditional tow. And be sure to consult the owner’s manual to confirm the recommended method of transport.

Can I get electrocuted from an electric car?

Any piece of electrical machinery is potentially dangerous, but in general, there is an extremely low risk you’ll be electrocuted by an electric car. The battery is sealed off, as is the drive train which contains the electric motor and its controller.

Manufacturers are so confident of the low-risk of electrocution, that as part of their testing, many electric cars are actually driven through deep water. Elon Musk even said that the Tesla Model S “floats well enough to turn into a boat for a short period of time”. Seeing that it can be fully submerged in water, you don’t have to worry about driving in the rain or through a puddle.

There’s a small risk of shock in the case of a crash where components are exposed. However, the high-voltage system doesn’t run in the passenger compartment, so the risk is minimal. If you find yourself in that situation, be sure to avoid the big orange cables!

Jack Delaney

Jack is a freelance writer for the Smith's Lawyers blig. He covers a range of topics from car technology and safety to current events.