How Safe Are Electric Cars? An Injury Lawyer's Perspective

Slowly but surely, electric vehicles (known as EVs by those hip to the trend) are growing in popularity in Texas. While not yet anywhere near to being as widespread as traditional internal combustion automobiles, EVs are now mainstream enough that hundreds of Walgreens stores nationwide now have electric car chargers installed for public use in their parking lots. There are at least 10 public EV charging stations within a five minute drive from our downtown Fort Worth office.
 
Of course, the rise of the electric car still has a long way to go. There are a number of safety concerns to start with, and in Texas there is also the issue of legislation which blocks the most prolific electric car manufacture, Tesla, from selling their vehicles because they choose to sell direct to consumers (à la Apple’s Apple Stores) rather than employing a dealership middle man. I could debate the merits (or lack thereof) of that particular law, but this is neither a political or economic post.
 
As a personal injury attorney, I am concerned with the issue of public safety, so this article will focus on the safety merits and risks of EVS compared with traditional gasoline-powered motor vehicles.
 
How Safe Are Electric Cars in a Crash?
Conventional wisdom tells us that in a collision between an 18-wheeler and a passenger car, the smaller vehicle will sustain the greater amount of damage and its occupants will often suffer catastrophic injuries as a result. My 20-plus years of helping truck wreck victims tells me this is indeed true. The problem for EVs, then, is that they do tend to be much smaller than the average vehicle on our road – especially in Texas where pickups are often the vehicle of choice even among those who don’t really need one.
 
For all these reasons, the small size of electric cars causes the perception that they are probably not as safe as the average car. For example, although not all Smart cars are battery-powered, they do seem very fragile – a fact underscored by the recent “urban cow-tipping” trend of vandalism in San Francisco.
 
However, most of the electric cars currently available on the market have actually scored much better on simulated crash tests than comparable conventional vehicles. Notably, both the 2014 Ford Focus Electric and the 2014 Tesla Model S each scored a perfect 5 star rating in all categories by the NHTSA.
 
Full results of those electric cars tested are as follows:
 
2014 Nissan LEAF: 4 out of 5 stars in all categories by NHTSA; Good (the highest rating) in all categories except front overlap (it is untested in this category) by IIHS.
 
2014 Chevrolet Volt: 5 stars in all categories apart from a 4/5 in frontal crash by NHTSA; Good (the highest rating) in all categories (except front overlap as it is untested in this category) by IIHS.
 
2014 Ford C-MAX Energi: 5 stars in side crash, 4/5 in all other categories by NHTSA.
 
2014 Ford Fusion Energi: 5 stars in all categories except 4/5 in rollover by NHTSA; Good in all categories except Acceptable in front overlap by IIHS. (IIHS score reflects all 2014 Ford Fusion models.)
 
2014 Smart Fourtwo Electric Drive: 5 stars in side crash, 4/5 in all other categories by NHTSA; Good in all categories except in head restraints and seats, untested in front overlap by IIHS. (IIHS score reflects all 2014 Smart Fourtwo models.)
 
2014 Chevrolet Spark: Good in all categories except Acceptable in front overlap by IIHS (all models.)
 
2014 Fiat 500: Good in all categories except Poor in front overlap test by IIHA (all models.)
 
2014 Honda Fit: Good in all categories except Poor in front overlap test by IIHA (all models.)
 
Across the board, these test results are good enough to place EVs either at or close to the top of the score board for all categories meaning they are actually among the safest cars to ride in out of all those currently available. The one bone of contention is the somewhat disappointing scores for the recently introduced front overlap test crash, which was prompted by a 2013 University of Buffalo study which concluded that in a small car versus SUV head-on crash, occupants in the smaller car were 7.6 times more likely to be killed. Of course, head on collisions are comparatively rare considering the number of fatal T-bone and rear-end wrecks that occur throughout the US each year.
 
This all results in the conclusion that electric cars generally fare much better in a simulated accidents than the average car, but things could still be improved.
 
Given the popular sense of ambiguity regarding EV safety, is it of little surprise that auto manufacturers have publically stated safety as one of their primary ongoing concerns and they have promised to continually improve the safety of their new electric vehicles. To get an idea of what these improvements might look like, we would do well to consider what is already in place in the Tesla Model S, currently the highest-ranked car available.
 
Let’s start with head-on impacts, since that’s where the greatest concern currently lies with regards to the safety of EVs. Unlike your conventional gas-guzzler, the Model S doesn’t have a gas-fueled engine under the hood. In fact, it doesn’t have anything at all under the hood. It has additional trunk space instead. (A “frunk,” Tesla calls it.) This means that a Model S has significantly longer crumple zone than most small cars which will better protect front seat occupants in the event of a head-on collision. In one real-life wreck last year, a Tesla Model S driver hit a concrete wall at 100mph and walked away unharmed.
 
The Model S also employs aerospace-grade aluminum rails in the frame of the car, which further protect the car’s occupants in the event of broadside collisions and make the car itself virtually indestructible.
 
Double bumpers in the back offer protection in rear-end impacts and which prevented any permanent disabilities to the crash test dummies sitting in the optional rear-facing third row.
 
When the Model S was tested to see how much pressure its roof could withstand in case of a rollover accident, the car actually broke the machine. Before the test had to be abandoned, the Model S successfully withstood more than 4 G’s of pressure without any trouble whatsoever. Of course, Model S owners don’t really need to worry about rolling over anyway, as the battery units are located in the floor of the vehicle, giving it an extremely low center of gravity.
 
Whereas the presence of a heavy battery can indeed be a safety bonus when it comes to preventing rollovers, it is actually the cause of the most widely-discussed concern regarding the safety of electric cars…
 
The Risk of Battery Fires
This is a hot topic which has perhaps become the most widely publicized safety concern regarding the viability of electric cars. EVs are powered by Li-ion batteries similar to those being used in laptop computers. They can get very hot, hence the need for cooling systems within EVs to keep them as cool as possible. Most of us don’t know much about the science behind Li-ion batteries, however, so we are reliant on the ever reliant scare-mongering media to inform us.
 
In my research for this article, I found that much of the hysteria concerning “exploding electric car batteries” can be traced to just four fires. Three of these were related to the Tesla Model S and occurred in 2013. The fourth occurred in a Chevy Volt back in 2011.
 
Let’s focus on the Tesla fires first.
 
I’ve already mentioned the instance in which one Model S driver smashed head-on into a concrete barrier. That was one. The other two fires were caused by the vehicle striking a piece of metal debris in the road, and a collision with a trailer hitch respectively.
 
All three of these fires were the result of the batteries (which are located on the underside of the vehicle) being stuck. So the Tesla does have a weak spot after all. However, unlike certain auto manufactures who are reluctant to acknowledge safety defects in their vehicles – cough, GM, cough – Tesla was quick to take action. They sent out a software update to all their vehicles which automatically adjusted their air suspension to give them higher clearance, making them less likely to hit debris and avoid such fire risks in the future.
 
It is also worth noting that no-one was hurt in any of these fires, a fact that is largely attributed to the fact that compared to gasoline vehicles which can explode almost immediately in the event of a fire, there is ample time for occupants to exit the vehicle in an EV fire.
 
The Chevy Volt battery fire occurred under even tamer circumstances – in a vehicle used in an NHTSA crash test. Three weeks after the test occurred.
 
This fire was blamed on the fact that GM hadn’t adequately communicated to the NHTSA their guidelines for draining and discarding the Volt’s battery pack following a collision. Again, no one was injured.
 
Of course, the media sensationalized this at the time and made it seems that the Volt has a record of exploding on impact – something which is plainly false.
 
None of this means that EV manufactures have overlooked the issue of battery fire prevention – particularly since it is such a big issue in the public conscious. Most have systems in place which immediately disconnect power if they detect an imminent collision, as well as in the event of any short circuit or other danger which might feasibly occur (such as current heading towards the car’s chassis). As with the Model S, the battery packs in most EVs are located as far away from the car’s crumple zones as possible and house the individual battery packs in separate steel cases in order to prevent a fire from spreading should one occur.
 
Battery-powered cars are new to us. We don’t understand them, and that’s what makes them scary. But in actuality it is gasoline-powered vehicles which are much more hazardous. Gas-powered cars and trucks keep all their gasoline concentrated in one single large tank. Gasoline is a flammable liquid. One gallon of gasoline has the same explosive power as 30 sticks of dynamite. Gas-powered vehicle’s engines work by deliberately igniting gasoline, hence the term internal-combustion engine. In short, there is at minimum an equal risk of fires in gasoline-powered vehicles as there are in battery-powered vehicles.
 
This opinion is echoed by the NHTSA who concluded that the agency “does not believe that Chevy Volts or other electric vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles.”
 
John German, a former Chrysler engineer who is now a director for the International Council on Clean Transportation also stated that “With respect to fire risk, electric vehicles are far safer than gasoline-fueled vehicles.”
 
Statistically, however, it is difficult to argue the case for either side. Sure, it can be done, but given the sheer lack of true data, the issue is incredibly murky.
 
EV supporters argue that crashes of conventional cars result in thousands of vehicle fires throughout the US each year. Last year, there were 172,000 fires in gas-powered cars (roughly one fire for every 1,350 cars on the road.) What is not known is how many of these fires actually occurred as the direct result of a collision. It is suspected very few, but there is insufficient data to support this. Comparing the number of gas car fires to the number of EV fires is also impossible as there is no organization equipped to record or manage such data.
 
Compared to the current known rate of fires in the Tesla Model S, where the likelihood of a fire is just 1 in 6,333, it certainly appears that gas-powered cars pose a much higher risk of a fire, but the numbers are close to statistically insignificant. This comparison also compares just one brand’s model to an entire category. For an accurate statistical comparison to be made, there needs to be much more data collected for all EVs and all circumstances of vehicular fires.
 
The Quiet Issue
So far we’ve focused on the two big issues which concern the safety of EV drivers and passengers. The third main safety issue when it comes to electric cars is that they’re so quiet. Too quiet. The Model S is completely noiseless.
 
While this might be welcome to most motorists, it can be an issue when it comes to the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists who often rely on their sense of sound to warn them of an approaching vehicle. If electric cars make no sound, then by the time they notice a car about to hit them it will in all likely be too late for them to avoid a collision. The NHTSA estimates that the odds of a pedestrian or bicyclist being involved in a collision with either an electric or hybrid vehicle to be significantly higher than with traditional gasoline-powered automobiles (specifically 19 percent higher for pedestrians, 32 percent higher for bicyclists.) But as with the risk of battery fires, there is no truly accurate statistical data to support this.
 
I do know that pedestrians and cyclists hit by a motor vehicle often suffer catastrophic bodily injuries, and there is no reason to think this would be any different if they were stuck by an electric vehicle as opposed to a gas-powered one.
 
Should EVs become the quiet norm, however, then one would hope that all road users (motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists alike) would all pay better attention to their surroundings in the hope of avoiding any collision similar to the successful results achieved by the numerous road marking-free streets found in many European cities. This might seem like too-Utopian of a solution for America though, and the EV’s dominance is certainly not going to occur in the immediate future.
 
For now, the NHTSA has recommended that all electric and hybrid vehicles emit a noise when traveling at up to 18.6mph in order to warn any pedestrian or cyclist that a vehicle is approaching. Of course, EV manufacturers and supporters have a number of complaints regarding these recommendations, none of which are particularly relevant to discuss here.
 
What I will say is that any auto-versus-pedestrian collision is typically the fault of the motorist. Regardless of whether or not the pedestrian (or bicyclist) was supposed to be in the roadway, motorists have a duty to respect a fellow human’s life and avoid a collision. So even if you were driving a completely silent car, if you were not speeding and paying full attention, you could most likely avoid any collision.
 
The overall safety of electric vehicles is an issue which will be debated and argued for the foreseeable future as there are significant monetary interests on both sides. Based on the current studies and statistics available, I must conclude that electric-powered vehicles do appear to be just as safe as traditional gas-powered automobiles. And in many regards, EVs seem to be the much safer option for the foreseeable future.