How safe are electric cars?

The combination of high-voltage electrical systems and reports of batteries catching fire might give you cause for concern. So, how safe are electric cars really?...

2022 Kia EV6 in Euro NCAP crash test

Electric cars are increasingly popular, with more than one million now on UK roads. However, as is so often the case with cutting-edge technology, there are some concerns around safety.

These fears include whether they become dangerous when exposed to water and how flammable the batteries might be in a crash. So, here we reveal everything you need to know about the safety of electric cars

How safe are electric cars in an accident? 

Electric vehicles (EVs) have to be built to the same safety standards as internal combustion engined (ICE) cars, meaning that they are actually just as safe in the event of a collision. 

Most manufacturers allow their cars to be crashed and assessed by independent safety body Euro NCAP, which awards an overall safety rating for each car it tests, allowing drivers to identify the safest choice for their needs.

In fact, the fully electric Tesla Model Y is the highest-scoring car tested by Euro NCAP since the latest standards were introduced in 2020, which is part of the reason why it won our Safety Award at the 2023 What Car? Awards.

Best for safety: Tesla Model Y

True, electric cars are built differently from ICE cars due to the absence of an engine. Instead, they are powered by an electric motor and battery. Despite this, though, the way in which an electric car reacts to a collision is similar to an ICE car. 

Alex Thompson, principal engineer for automotive safety at Thatcham Research, said: “We've now got a lot of experience in testing EVs compared to ICE vehicles. And we see that vehicle manufacturers have taken a great deal of care in making sure that the vehicles are designed to the same high standards as their ICE equivalents.

“In the past 25 years, crash safety for all cars has improved dramatically. And all the vehicles that are being produced now offer a very high level of safety, with EVs no exception.”

It helps that modern ICE and electric cars come kitted out with an abundance of safety technology to help decrease the likelihood of a crash, including automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane-keeping assist and blind spot monitoring.

Do electric cars catch fire? 

Just like petrol and diesel cars, electric cars can catch fire. Even if one cell within the battery were to ignite, this could trigger a chain reaction and cause the rest to follow. 

It’s important to stress, though, that fires are very rare, because manufacturers have gone to great lengths to ensure that they don’t happen. 

BMW 1 Series Convertible catches fire and is then recalled

A Freedom of Information request submitted by Air Quality News revealed that the London Fire Brigade tackled 54 EV fires in 2019, compared with 1898 fires involving petrol or diesel cars. True, there are far more petrol and diesel cars on London roads than EVs, but this still means there were proportionally fewer electric car fires than fires involving ICE cars. 

A more recent report conducted by Health and Safety organisation CE Safety found that there have been 753 callouts to EV fires in the UK over the past five years. This total includes all types of electric vehicle, including e-scooters and e-bikes, with electric cars representing 44%. 

Thompson, from Thatcham Research, commented: “We know that vehicle manufacturers have designed their batteries and high voltage components to be very well protected, so there isn't really any additional concern about fires.

“I think in the early days, people were very concerned about it, because it was very much an unknown. But thanks to the design work that's gone in to protect the battery components, I’d say that we're not seeing any evidence that there is a greater fire risk with electric cars.” 

Is it true that electric car fires are harder to put out? 

Although EV fires are rare, firefighters have found that they are very hard to put out once they start. This is because lithium-ion batteries burn hot and fast. They also require more effort to be extinguished because the batteries can reignite after the fire has been initially controlled.

A statement from the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) explains: “The reignition of batteries is possible after prolonged periods, after mechanical shock, heating or battery faults. They may require extended periods of cooling and monitoring after a fire or collision. Damaged batteries can be too sensitive to move, and personnel may have to consider cordoning off a vehicle and handing it over to a responsible person.”

Tesla Model S Euro NCAP crash test

Firefighters are still trying to work on an effective response plan to tackle EV fires. The NFCC currently advises firefighters to “seek specialist advice or consider manufacturer’s guidelines for information about appropriate firefighting media, access and isolation.”

Several electric car manufacturers advise that the fire should be left to burn out by itself, while others such as Tesla have noted in their emergency response guides that submerging the EV in water to cool down the battery is the best way to tackle the fire. 

However, to do so, this requires large amounts of water. A Tesla Model S which burst into flames in California required more than 20,000 litres of water to put it out. 

Can an electric car electrocute you?

Everyone knows electricity and water don’t mix well. So, what happens if you get your electric car wet?

Luckily, all the electrical components are built deep within the car to prevent water intrusion, so you can safely drive your car through a car wash or the rain without the risk of getting electrocuted. There’s even something known as a ‘soak test’; this exposes new models to near-flood levels of rain to ensure they’re safe. 

Car wash

Charging in the rain is also fine, because charging stations and plugs are all insulated. 

As well as this, most high voltage systems within electric cars are programmed to automatically disengage in a collision or if the car finds itself submerged in water.

Is it dangerous to work on an electric car? 

Just like regular ICE cars, electric cars need servicing and maintenance. However, not every mechanic is qualified to work on an EV; their high voltage electrical systems mean there's a risk of electrocution, which is why mechanics must undergo specialist training to work on an EV.

There were 39,000 UK mechanics that were qualified to work on an electric car by the end of 2022, according to figures from the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI), and this figure will only increase as the UK car market continues to transition to electric motoring. 

Does the added weight of electric cars make them more dangerous to drive? 

Electric cars are a lot heavier than most combustion-engined models due to the weight of their batteries. In most cases, these are located under the floor, which helps maximise interior space while lowering the centre of gravity. 

Winter range test 2023 contenders

Indeed, this low centre of gravity helps to minimise the risk of rolling over in a collision, which can actually make EVs safer than tall ICE cars.

On top of this, manufacturers have taken into account the additional mass of electric cars by supplying upgraded brakes to be able to sufficiently stop the car in the event of an emergency braking situation. 

Are passengers more vulnerable in an electric car? 

Quite the contrary; if an accident proves unavoidable, electric cars are often able to protect their occupants better than similarly sized ICE models.

Thompson explains: “Because EVs don't have an engine up front, they actually have more space to absorb the energy of an impact instead of letting occupants take the force of it.”

The history of Euro NCAP crash tests

What Car? says…

If you’re on the fence about buying an electric car, concerns around safety shouldn't put you off. They’re built to the same standards as regular petrol and diesel models, and can actually perform better in an accident. Plus, like most modern cars, they're equipped with an abundance of active safety technology that's designed to help you avoid having a collision in the first place. 

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