This started with an article over at The Silicon Graybeard, which was of interest to the geeks who love all things tech. (Which includes me!) It was on the problem of Thermal Runaway in lithium ion batteries. And they are a problem.
As the number of electric vehicles continues to grow, the number of fires is going up. I did a piece about burning Teslas five years ago, in February of ’14. At that time, Tesla seemed to have a catastrophic fire rate of about 1 in 4000 cars. For perspective, at the same time, GM had just recalled 370,000 of their GMC Sierra pickups for a software fix that had caused eight fires, or 1 in 46,250, less than 1/10 the electric Tesla’s rate.
This prompted a search, which was going to try and get better numbers on Tesla and the current state of affairs. (I may still keep looking for that, and if I find it, I will post it somewhere.) But instead I tripped over something I missed. Since I don’t have any connection to the CNN, MSNBC, EIEIO 24-hour-news, I don’t know if this got much coverage. Though my guess is any coverage was drowned out under “Oh, my God, the .gov is shut down!” or “Russia, Russia, Russia!” Teens burned to death after 116 mph crash. Lawsuit blames Tesla for the speed and fire.
Now ordinarily I wouldn’t think they would have much of a chance with the lawsuit, but then there is this.
The suit presents James and Jenny Riley, Barrett’s parents, and the Montserratts as victims of Tesla negligence. Three days after Barrett Riley got ticketed for zooming the Tesla at 112 mph through a 50-mph zone on March 3, the suit claims, the Rileys had Tesla mechanics install a device that put an 85-mph limit on the car’s speed.
But when the car was serviced from March 29 through April 3 at Tesla’s Bahia Beach Broward County service center, Tesla mechanics “improperly removed the speed limiter/governor without the permission and consent of” the Rileys, the suit says.
Oops. Of course it is Beyond the Pale to assume that parents would actually do some parenting and take the keys away from the kid. Get them a Trabant, They couldn’t go 50 MPH. Or an early VW, though both of those lack any safety equipment. And I do mean Any. (My dad had a VW bus, that was lucky to go 45 MPH.) But then that wouldn’t fit with the whole Aventura, FL scene. I could barely afford to park my car in Aventura, not that there was much reason to go there. I seem to remember a decent deli. (Real NY pastrami.)
The thermal runaway connection? The batteries caught fire in the crash, and were nearly impossible to douse.
“The two battery packs in the car contain hundreds of small batteries that power everything on the car,” Corboy said. “If one of the batteries catches fire, every battery around it catches fire in short order.”
And an electrical fire burns differently from a gasoline or oil fire. Water and foam do not knock the fire out. As the NTSB report says, after using 200 to 300 gallons of water and foam in an attempt to extinguish the burning car, the battery blazed up again on the tow truck. It rose again in the storage yard, requiring fire rescue workers to put it out.
The current state of battery technology is almost good enough. The trouble is, in order to pack in enough battery power to try to make the range acceptable, given the hours-long recharging time, engineers have to leave out all that bulky fire-suppression material.