Electric Vehicle Safety: Your Top Questions Answered
The popularity and growth of the electric vehicle (EV) market are evident. Despite the rapid 16% drop in worldwide car sales during 2020, EV registrations grew the same year by 41%. According to Energy Saver, sales of new light-duty plug-in electric vehicles, including all-electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), nearly doubled from 308,000 in 2020 to 608,000 in 2021 and EV sales accounted for 73% of all plug-in electric vehicle sales in 2021. In total, EV sales grew by a whopping 85% from 2020 to 2021. As investments in EVs increase so too has the interest in electric vehicle safety.
Just about every vehicle manufacturer has at least one fully EV or hybrid EV model to choose from – even the Jeep Wrangler offers a hybrid option with a fully electric version expected in 2024. Whether you are looking to save on your gas bill, a fan of the high-tech look and feel of EVs, or passionate about reducing your carbon footprint, you are bound to find an EV that fits your needs in 2022.
According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, EVs also require less maintenance than conventional vehicles because:
- The battery, motor, and associated electronics require little to no regular maintenance
- There are fewer fluids, such as engine oil, that require regular maintenance
- Brake wear is significantly reduced due to regenerative braking
- There are far fewer moving parts relative to a conventional gasoline engine.
Electric vehicles are innately safer than their combustion-engine counterparts. Whether you are deciding what type of car to purchase next or already own an EV and are curious to learn more about overall safety and charging – then look no further. This article will outlive everything you should know about your electric vehicle safety.
Are EVs Safer than Conventional Cars?
Before jumping into all things EV safety, it is important to understand the key differences between electric vehicles (EVs) and conventional cars. EVs are powered by a completely different mechanism than an internal combustion vehicle (ICE). Traditional vehicles are powered by an internal combustion engine while an EV operates on an electric motor powered by the onboard rechargeable battery.
This fundamental difference in energy input – gasoline providing energy for conventional cars and electrical charge powering an EV – has some consequences on the way the owner or driver interacts with their vehicle. Specifically, around refueling, a conventional car requires a five–ten-minute stop at a gas station whenever the tank is empty. Depending on your commute, the number of drivers, and fuel efficiency, refueling a conventional car might take place every one to four weeks.
On the other hand, an EV’s onboard battery needs to be charged using a standard EV charger. Usually, this will take place overnight with charging equipment installed in the owner’s garage. Public “supercharging” stations, featuring special equipment capable of ultra-fast charge times, are also becoming more common throughout the country. For more general information on EVs, check out our article “Your Most Common EV Questions Answered.”
Now that we understand this major innovation – the fact that EVs do not require any fuel and operate purely on electricity – let’s dive into how this is integrated under the car’s hood. All EVs are designed with four unique design elements: (1) the onboard charger, (2) the battery, (3) the inverter, and (4) the motor. The onboard charger is responsible for converting household AC power to DC while the battery stores energy in the form of charged electricity. An inverter regulates the current, or flow of electricity, from the battery to the motor while the motor converts this electricity into torque which accelerates the vehicle.
As you can see, the EV is based on a totally different concept than a combustion engine. A combustion engine burns fossil fuel in a “controlled explosion” to trigger the piston movement which drives the engine. These differences make the EV safer from a flammability, collision, and maintenance perspective.
Reason 1: Lower Flammability Risk
The fact that an EV eliminates gasoline makes them inherently safer in dangerous situations, such as in a collision. The fuel tank in a traditional car only needs to be punctured to set off a fire or at worst can heat up and explode.
Li-ion batteries within an EV can also catch fire through a process called thermal runaway. Thermal runaway occurs through a short circuit which can eventually heat up the battery to the point of ignition. For this reason, EV batteries are equipped with thermal management systems which maintain a safe operating temperature under normal conditions. It should be noted the chances of a fire explosion in an EV are far lower than that of a conventional car.
Recent data on Teslas supports this fact. Research into Tesla vehicle fires shows that 160 out of one million Teslas on the road globally in 2020 resulted in a fire which is only 0.01%. In Tesla’s 2020 Impact Report, statistical analysis revealed that a vehicle fire results for every 205 million miles traveled, compared to one fire for every 19 million miles traveled for internal combustion-based cars.
Reason 2: Safer in Collision
As mentioned above, the EV does not have an engine block but rather an onboard battery which is relatively heavier and positioned much lower within the vehicle. This drops the center of gravity making the EV less likely to roll over in the event of a collision.
Reason 3: Lower Likelihood of Mechanical Breakdown
Probably one of the less thought of reasons regarding vehicle safety is mechanical breakdown. Mechanical breakdown is commonly overlooked when analyzing car accidents but can lead to spontaneous collisions, especially in the absence of routine maintenance.
Because an EV has a totally different design than the conventional car, there are far fewer parts to maintain. An EV’s drive train is composed of about 20 moving parts while a conventional car is composed of approximately 2000 parts. The simplicity of the EV means far less opportunity for mechanical issues. As a result, the EV maintenance intervals are generally longer than that of conventional cars.
How Safe Are Electric Cars?
The inherent design of EVs makes them safer than conventional cars from the perspective of flammability, collision, and mechanical breakdown. Another trend observed across EVs is their use of innovative safety features and technologies such as ultra-bright headlights, driver assist sensors, and automatic braking systems to name a few.
This overall safety advantage is evident in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash-test data on four electric SUVs: the Volvo XC40 Recharge, the Ford Mustang Mach-E, the Audi E-Tron, and Tesla Model 3. All received Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ awards by meriting good ratings in six crash test categories.
Another comprehensive analysis published by the IIHS compared nine EVs to their combustion engine versions focusing on collision and injury insurance claims. This side-by-side study showed that EVs were associated with 40% fewer driver and passenger injury claims compared to the non-EV model.
While EVs are generally safer than conventional cars for the reasons stated above, many of the features that make EVs so attractive to consumers can increase the safety risks to pedestrians and the driver in extreme cases. It is important to understand these potential risks as a prospective EV buyer or current EV owner.
Electric vehicles are very quiet – perhaps too quiet. This increases the risk of the accident since the pedestrian might not hear the car approaching. To mitigate this risk, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has required all hybrids and EVs to emit warning noise when traveling under 19 mph (similar to the sound emitted from newer crosswalk signals), a speed at which the car is virtually silent.
Overcharging with defective charging equipment can lead to a fire. Imagine leaving the car plugged in overnight, unknowingly connected to a damaged or defective charging port, and waking up to a fire. Thankfully, EV charger regulations and standards prevent this risk however it is still the responsibility of the owner to not damage or tamper with such equipment.
The hands-free mode can lead to accidents if the driver is not using it as intended. Many EVs like Tesla come with an auto-pilot mode that is designed to be used with a ‘fully attentive driver’. This means that the driver must be always paying attention with both hands on the wheel so they can intervene at any moment. As stated on Tesla’s webpage, these features ‘do not make the vehicle autonomous. However, we can all imagine a situation where someone may take the hands-free mode literally which could lead to unintended consequences.
Can You Charge an Electric Car in The Rain?
The short answer to that concern is yes, EVs can be charged in the rain. Charging systems, whether at home or elsewhere, are designed with covering shields and layers to protect against water damage, shorts, or sparks.
One way to quantify the resistance of an EV or other object’s resistance to water is through the IP rating, also known as the ingress protection rating. The IP is defined by two digits representing the object’s protection against solids and liquids, respectively, with a maximum value of IP68. The Nissan Leaf for example has an IP of 67 meaning that it is providing maximum solid and nearly perfect protection against liquid ingress. For context, only specialized objects like buoys are rated with an 8 for the second digit of the IP scale.
Electric Vehicle Safety Standards
Commercial EVs as well as conventional cars must align with the same Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The only exception is neighborhood EVs (like golf carts or Polaris low-speed vehicles) which are subject to less stringent safety standards.
Safety issues unique to EVs are detailed in the international standard ISO 6469 which has 3 main sections: (1) battery safety, (2) functional safety means and mitigation of failure, and (3) personal safety against electrical hazards. The document specifies both the technical requirements and test procedures for thermal shock cycling and simulated vehicle accident tests. It also describes several functional requirements including overcharge protection, thermal management, and short circuit protection.
Are Electric Cars Safe in Accidents?
It’s important to state that all cars can become dangerous based on their size, weight, speed, and momentum. Fortunately, EV’s unique design allows for a lower center of gravity making them more robust against rollover. The drastically lower number of moving parts in the drivetrain also protects against mechanical breakdown-related accidents.
Perhaps the biggest safety concern in an EV is the battery pack catching fire in the event of a major collision. In addition to the safety features mentioned above such as thermal management systems, onboard EV batteries are intentionally designed as a disaggregated system composed of an array of Li-ion cells. The Tesla Roadster battery contains 7000 cells wired to provide the needed voltage for powering the vehicle. Comparatively, the conventional car’s tank of gas acts as a single point of failure.
Electric Vehicle Charging Safety Guidelines
The IEC 61851 standard describes EV charging system guidelines. The standard covers four charging modes.
Modes 1 and 2 are characterized by a standard socket-outlet so will be most common in a domestic environment. In mode 1 a standard charging cable is connected to a standard socket outlet to the AC supply. Since there is no additional equipment to prevent breaker tripping or electric shock some regions have forbidden this mode including the US. Mode 2 takes mode 1 and fortifies it with a shock protection system within the charging cable – these cables are usually included with your EV purchase.
Modes 3 and 4 are permanent and usually found in commercial or public locations. Mode 3 employs a dedicated EV charging station with integrated safety functionality. Since the mode 3 system is not limited by a household AC supply, the supplied power can be upwards of 20 kW AC leading to faster charge times. Mode 4 provides the fastest charging time by bypassing the vehicle’s inverter. IEC 61851-24 mandates digital communication between the EV and charging equipment to ensure safety in Mode 4 systems.
Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly common. Anyone on the fence regarding EV safety can see that the years of data to prove electrifying vehicles will not come at the expense of safety. Not only are EVs a great alternative to conventional cars, but they also provide an extra layer of safety to their owners and even pedestrians. Be sure to check out other EV-related content on our blog.
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