By Mark Rosekind
Lithium-ion batteries, and any potential fire hazards they present, are not just relegated to the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. At this week’s Washington Auto Show in the nation’s capital, one of the largest gatherings of automobile manufacturers in the country, car makers from the United States and abroad are showcasing the latest in electric vehicle technology – a technology that depends upon safe, efficient lithium-ion batteries. Policy-makers, like those at the U.S. Department of Energy, used the show to outline aggressive plans to increase the production of electric vehicles and make them more widely available to American consumers as, “…an essential part” of the Obama Administration’s comprehensive approach to reducing fossil fuel dependence.
This year’s NTSB “Most wanted List” (http://www.ntsb.gov/safety/mwl.html) includes fire safety and as the Board Member responsible for advancing the agency’s advocacy goals on this issue, car shows like this and the recent North American International Auto Show that I attended in Detroit offer valuable opportunities to learn more about what the industry is doing to ensure that electric vehicles are safe from battery-related fires.
Fires can be dangerous in any situation and NTSB investigations have revealed shortcomings in how transportation modes address fire safety. When fires are detected and addressed early, the chances of surviving, reducing injury, and minimizing damage greatly increase. When new technologies emerge, such as those in electric cars, the NTSB wants to ensure they are as safe as possible.
Lithium-ion batteries hold a tremendous amount of promise to increase the efficiency of all kinds of vehicles. They have a longer life than traditional batteries, offer more energy storage, and weigh less. But these advantages are not risk-free as we have seen with the Dreamliner’s recent problems, as well as some noteworthy troubles with electric cars. In June of 2011, the NTSB investigated a fire involving a Chevy Volt’s battery pack that ignited after a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash test. On other occasions, the Volt’s battery started smoking. Another brand of electric car caught fire in a parking lot and 16 of the same model burned after salt water from Hurricane Sandy flooded them on loading docks.
Technology and transportation are inextricably linked and offer unprecedented levels of safety, efficiency, and comfort in getting from one place to another. But safety should take precedence above all other factors. As the nation searches for ways to reduce its carbon footprint, reduce fossil fuel consumption, limit pollution, and reduce the cost of driving, industry needs to work hard at getting to the bottom of these critical safety issues regarding lithium-ion batteries and embrace swift action to eliminate related fire hazards. As the NTSB moves forward with increased focus on fire safety across all modes of transportation, I will be keenly interested in what the auto makers have to demonstrate that address concerns with lithium-ion batteries and safely move us into a new century of transportation achievements.