NTSB Chair on EVs: “They are a Significant Risk in Terms of Battery Fire”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At the Senate Commerce Committee hearing this week, U.S. Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) questioned National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair ??Jennifer Homendy about the dangers of electric vehicles (EVs), including the safety risks they pose to first responders and the driving public.

During the hearing, Senator Fischer discussed the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s first-of-its-kind crash test of an EV pickup truck to better understand whether currently used guardrails are prepared for the growing number of EVs.

Senator Fischer also discussed her efforts to modernize crash test dummies and ensure that federal vehicle standards protect both male and female drivers. 

Click the image above to watch video of Sen. Fischer’s questioning

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On the Risks of EVs to First Responders:

Senator Fischer:
 Last year, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln campus 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 those heavier EVs that are on our roads. At 60 miles per hour, the 7,000 lb. electric truck tore through the barrier without offering any protection to the traveling public or reduction in speed.

I've recently heard from first responders that are also concerned about responding to electric vehicle fires. 40% of firefighters have never had EV fire safety training. And I've heard of instances of more water needed to extinguish vehicle batteries and the increase in those toxic gases from the lithium batteries. What has NTSB found in its investigations on the EV crashes that are unique compared to the internal combustion engines? Have you begun to condense that data so it can educate us on what's happening here?

Chair Homendy: Yes, just a few years ago, we issued a report on the risks of lithium-ion battery fires and electric vehicles to first responders and to second responders. And we defined second responders in the report as tow truck operators. We had done a number of investigations where there were significant risks to the first responders in terms of stranded energy in the vehicle and in the battery and its components itself, the amount of work it took to extinguish the fires, and the potential for shock to emergency responders themselves.

In fact, we did an investigation in Mountain View, California, where the first responders had to reach out to the auto manufacturer to ask them to come to the scene of the crash. They were lucky they were three miles away. But, if you think about volunteer firefighters who may be in a rural area, that's not something that's readily — their ability to get people on scene. In this particular one, we saw reignition several times of the electric vehicle. And we have with others: not just on the scene, but also on the tow truck and up to five days later in the tow yard itself.

So, they are a significant risk in terms of battery fire. There are significant risks for emergency responders. And, while we have not done an investigation involving electric vehicles and the wait, I have raised a red flag numerous times to say it is an impact on safety.

You mentioned the excellent work that was done by the University of Nebraska. Our guard rails, crash attenuators, they are rated up to 5,000 lbs. Many of these vehicles go up to 10,000lbs. One vehicle, the lithium-ion battery alone weighs the same weight as a Honda Civic: 3,000lbs. So, that has an impact on safety; not just on infrastructure, making sure that people in the vehicles are safe after there is a crash, vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle to those outside of the vehicle. And as I said, vehicle to infrastructure. It's going to have a significant impact on safety.

On the Need to Modernize Federal Vehicle Safety Standards, Crash Test Dummies:

Senator Fischer:
 Currently, we have governmental regulations that stipulate the use of the male crash test dummies in vehicle testing, and it doesn't mandate any inclusion of female crash test dummies. And this is despite the data that's out there revealing a 17% higher mortality rate and a 73% higher likelihood of serious injury among women who are in these vehicle crashes, compared to men. And, given the the statistics that are out there just on regular vehicles — not even on EVs with the exponential increase in the weight there, don't you think that we need to look at female crash test dummies as well so we can start to gather data there? And, do you have have any information on the different sized vehicles that women may choose to drive compared to men?

Chair Homendy: … You know, whether it's an electric vehicle or gas fueled vehicle, we are seeing increasing sizes and weights of vehicles across the industry. Crash test dummies, right now for adults, are based on — really back to the 70s — based on an adult male that is the height of about 5'9" and weighs 175lbs … The stature of different types of people need to be taken into consideration. I'm really thankful for your work in this area, by the way, and very pleased with the GAO's report that came out as a result of that work. I do hope NHTSA takes them up on it and really takes those recommendations seriously to really look at the different types of people who are operating in our vehicles to ensure safety. And it's not just the safety of the individuals. It's also making sure that those vehicles are structured so they're protecting. It's the crashworthiness of the vehicle and protecting those inside it.

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