This happens a lot with mobile phones batteries and it appears that it also happens with the batteries we have on cars. Li-Ion batteries are based on extremely volatile substances which, despite all safety measures implemented by manufacturers, can cause problems. And when the battery contains hundreds and even thousands of Li-Ion cells in a very narrow space, the destructive effect can be quite big.
Unlike the GPL tank of a car, the battery of an electric vehicle cannot have detectable flammable gas leaks and it doesn’t need an external spark to cause a fire or an explosion.
The problems can appear out of the blue and it may be caused by any of the thousands of Li-ion cells which, most likely because of a manufacturing error, catches fire because of the membrane that separates the volatile elements of the battery. The spark is replaced by a short circuit that appears inside the battery.
Ideally, the random destruction of a single Li-Ion battery cell should not cause a fire as the chain reaction is being stopped by the safety measures implemented by the manufacturer. The first barrier is the liquid based cooling system each Tesla car is equipped with, which is also constantly monitored by the car’s computer. The last barrier is the metallic wrapper of the Li-Ion battery and the separating elements which divide the Li-Ion cells groups in separate groups.
Unfortunately, for the Tesla Model S car in the video above none of these safeguards worked. In the video we can see smoke long before the fire which means that the passengers of the car would have had enough time to exit the car if the incident was to happen when the car was moving. The fire of this Tesla Model S car also endangered other vehicles in the parking lot and the gas released by the Li-Ion battery is more toxic than the smoke which has the risk of endangering the health of people nearby.
Unlike vehicle equipped with GPL thanks, electric cars are not banned from public parking with limited ventilation because their batteries are not considered hazardous. What is certain is that both types of vehicles house volatile substances which, in some conditions, can cause fires or even explosions. The batteries of electric cars however cannot cause flammable gas releases in closed spaces, so banning them in parking lots cannot be justified.
The good news is that the risk of a spontaneous fire of an electric car is very low, this being the second fire of a Tesla car reported in the last 12 months.
Tesla has been notified of the recent Model S fire and the company sent out a team of specialists to investigate into the reasons why the fire happened. Tesla says that this is a “highly unusual event” and the company says that the fire has not damaged the interior of the car as Tesla Model S has safeguards in place so this doesn’t happen.