Electric Vehicle Mandates Increase Safety Risks


U.S. Senator Deb Fischer

By U.S. Senator Deb Fischer

On April 17, 2021, firefighters raced to extinguish a blaze in a suburb of Houston, Texas. A Tesla Model S crashed, killing two people, and burst into flames.

The Woodlands Township Fire Department extinguished the fire. But shortly after, flames erupted again. They put it out a second time — only for the car to reignite once more. The fire chief compared the Tesla to “a trick birthday candle.” Once you blow it out, you never know when it will flare back up.

After seven hours, the team of eight firefighters finally put out the fire for good. When a gas-powered car catches on fire, first responders can put it out with 300 gallons of water. It took this team 28,000 gallons before the Tesla’s fire was safely extinguished. They told NBC News that’s the same amount of water their department normally uses in a month. And it’s about the same amount of water that an average American home uses over two years.

This story illustrates just one of many public safety concerns with electric vehicles — concerns that our existing infrastructure and first responders aren’t equipped to handle.

I recently questioned National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy about the risks of EVs at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Last year, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln conducted a first-of-its-kind crash test of an electric pickup truck to study whether current highway guardrails adequately protect against the growing number of EVs on our roads. EVs are, on average, 30 percent heavier than their gas-powered counterparts. In the UNL crash test, the 7,000 lb electric pickup tore through a highway barrier at 60 miles per hour. The guardrail didn’t even slow the truck down.

I asked Chair Homendy about the NTSB’s investigations into electric vehicle safety, including for first responders. She discussed a report on the risks of lithium-ion battery fires, like the one in the Houston suburbs, for emergency responders. Homendy called EVs a “significant risk in terms of battery fire.” “Stranded energy” in a vehicle can cause electric shock to first responders. Also, damaged battery cells can experience uncontrolled increases in temperature and pressure, causing battery reignition.

The NTSB concluded that electric vehicle fires pose a threat to first responders and that vehicle manufacturers have distributed inadequate guidance to responders to mitigate safety risks. More research and clearer guidance are necessary to protect our first responders who are increasingly encountering these emergencies. These risks affect everything from our training to our infrastructure — the sprinkler systems installed in buildings now won’t be enough to quench an EV fire.

These initiatives will take time. If the Biden administration continues pushing an electrified vehicle fleet as quickly as it is now, safety issues will go unresolved until it’s too late. If the market determines the popularity of EVs rather than the federal government, we’ll have time to catch up by taking additional safety measures. Instead of glamorizing electric vehicles and concealing their problems, let’s look their problems in the face and fix them.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.