With More Electric Cars in U.S., More Safety Concerns


Recent estimates from automakers may mean that the numbers of electric cars on American roadways may skyrocket in the coming year.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), General Motors reported selling almost 3,000 of its new Volt, and Nissan estimates that it will double sales of the Leaf in the coming year.

In addition to these numbers, Honda, BMW, Ford, Mitsubishi, Mercedes, Coda and Tesla all expect to sell new electric models in the U.S. this year. But along with a boom in these new autos, comes a boom in new safety hazards.

Because of the unique risks posed by parts like the lithium-ion batteries found in electric and hybrid vehicles, the NHTSA held a technical workshop to begin hammering out official rules around monitoring, production and safety of new electric vehicle technologies. Prior to the workshop, the NHTSA released so-called “interim guidelines” for various groups–ranging from first responders and fire departments, to tow-truck operators, to owners of electric and hybrid vehicles. These guidelines were the result of investigations into the Chevy Volt by the NHTSA, after some raised concerns that the vehicle’s battery contained a defect that made it especially vulnerable to catching on fire after a crash or accident.

While the investigation did not find any defect specific to the Volt battery, the NHTSA did recognize that electric and hybrid vehicles do raise special safety concerns, if just because of the newness of their technology. The interim guidelines for vehicle owners and the general public released by the NHTSA (available here) says that damaged lithium-ion vehicle batteries as well as damaged electric or hybrid vehicles shouldn’t be stored within a structure or within 50 feet of a structure, because of post-crash fire risks. However, says the NHTSA, post-crash fire risks are common in gasoline powered vehicles as well.

In cases where an electric or hybrid is involved in an accident, drivers and bystanders–as well as law enforcement, safety and emergency workers–should assume that all battery units are fully charged and are dangerous to touch. The NHSTA also wants people to be aware that damaged battery units can leak toxic gases and chemicals, and exposed wires present a serious shock hazard.

For other information about the safety of specific models of electric or hybrid vehicles, owners should check the manuals that came with the auto.


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