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EVs & fires – a historical perspective

Many, many years ago apes roamed the earth, living as hunter-gatherers, even without the benefit of Google Maps.

Somewhere along the line a few of those apes evolved into big-brained homo sapiens, one of whom was later to be known as Brett. These clever animals discovered that dropping a few seeds into disturbed earth meant you didn’t need to spend time gathering edible plants as the food could be right there in your back yard.  They also realised it was easier to tame, and then domesticate other animals which saved the trouble of running around the country to first find a tasty one, then fight it to death. Much easier to just pop out to the pen and pick one for dinner, especially if you’ve bred it for meat and not to be so inconveniently argumentative when you decide it’s lunchtime.

The homo sapiens had of course long known the benefits of fire. We’ll never know how they came to understand the utility of concentrated heat – I imagine that Og the Caveman one day accidentally dropped a bit of mastodon in a fire, decided to eat it anyway as Uber Eats was still a few eons away, and thus the well-done steak was created which is still a favourite of cavemen even today.

Whatever the story, fire seemed to be the first source of energy humanity managed to harness. And aside from rabid them-and-us tribalism, a defining characteristics of homo sapiens is inventing ways to make life easier. So rather than go gathering wood every time they wanted a fire, Og and his mates would have stockpiled a few logs for easy access. And sooner or later they would have discovered the effects of concentrated energy when someone accidentally set the pile on fire, producing overcooked steaks not for the Og family but for the sabre-toothed tigers.

At this point the safety inspector of the day, Bog, would have arrived with a stone tablet and etching flint to a perform risk assessment. Bog no doubt realised that while wood is an excellent source of energy, concentrating so much in one area is a risk, and risks needs to be managed. He’d have figured out that water could extinguish fires, and ordered a few filled gourds to be kept handy – or maybe animal skins, I’m not sure when pottery was invented relative to management of fire, probably afterwards I imagine. Anyway you get the idea.  He’d have noted that keeping the surrounding area free of flammable material was a pretty decent idea, and also trained a few cavepeople in how to deal with fires should they break out.

As humanity evolved and invented this process was repeated again and again. We discovered more energy sources; various types of oil, gas, electricity and more.  All could be highly concentrated, and thus there was risk.  Happily now we are even cleverer than we once were, and we can foresee risks and plan accordingly.  We’re all driving large metal objects at high speeds carrying 50-200L of flammable liquid and nobody seems overly bothered by the risks, despite the dire claims of the horseriders back around the late 1800s who pointed out their horses were no fire risk at all, whilst ignoring the advantages of the motorcar and the risks of horse transport. Ah, how times don’t change.

Which brings us to electric vehicles.  I’ve been posting about them for years, and it remains the most divisive topic with of course the bizarre exception of yellow hooks (there’s a psychology study right there).  However, only very recently have a lot of the comments been focused on EV fire risk so I thought I’d address the subject.

The problem is there’s a noisy 2% of the population who are interfering with reasonable debate and discussion. Around 1% of people appear to be rabidly anti-EV for reasons I cannot fully discern, cherrypicking semi-factoids to ‘justify’ spittle-flecked rants – I sometimes think these people rely on a poorly-coded comment generator somewhere on the web using keywords of mining, lithium, child labour, recycle, generator, cobalt, woke and a few more.  Then there’s the other 1%, the crowd who will brook no criticism of EVs whatsoever but are ever-ready with paragraphs of snark, scorn and condescension whist also picking their own cherry-factoids from a different part of the tree and not apparently realising that self-righteous mockery isn’t the way to persuade anyone to change their mind on anything.

Happily, 98% of the population is neither group, and I think those are the true ‘quiet Australians’ we hear so much about. I would also note that since the invention of wheeled vehicles humans have always had, at any one time, harnessed multiple energy sources for propulsion; we’ve enlisted animals including horses, oxen, dogs, mules and elephants, and used steam, petrol, diesel, gas, hydrogen, electricity, gravity and more. Right now we’re in an EV revolution for all sorts of very good reasons, but I can’t see a future where just one energy source is used, so again there’s a middle ground.

So the reality of today’s EV fire risk is that is somewhere in between the two most enthusiastically promoted extreme views. Statistically, EVs are less likely to catch fire than ICE, something played up by pro-EV people, but if the propulsion battery catches fire, then the EV fire demands much more effort and resources to extinguish – this is played up by the anti-EV people.  EV fires, as you quickly find when you begin looking at it, are a very complex subject – there’s thermal runaway, re-ignition, generating its own oxygen and more. The impact of a risk is probability x consequence, and for EVs that’s low x high. We’ve had over a century of experience with ICE car fires, whereas EV fires are definitely a relatively new and different risk, and to say otherwise is simply denial of reality. And let’s also be clear; it’s really battery fires that’s the risk, as we use bigger and more lithium batteries in many applications, not least cheap e-scooters.

So if it’s not apparent already, humanity has been dealing with the risk of concentrated energy ever since there were humans. EVs and our increasingly reliance on batteries are merely the latest challenge, and they won’t be the last either.  We didn’t look at the first accidental bonfire and think, well that’s it, too dangerous, no more wood. We didn’t watch the first petrol car burn and then persist with horses. We didn’t un-invent gas after the first explosion. We’re better than that. We’re homo sapiens, big-brained bipeds, smartest animals on the planet except for dolphins and mice, we solve problems, we fix, we manage.  And so too, we can, will, and are solving the EV fire problem. 

If you’re actually interested in the facts behind EV fires, check out my interview with EV FireSafe on my YouTube channel.

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