Saltwater damage from Hurricane Ian has left South Florida with a new danger: electric vehicles (EVs) that spontaneously combust.
At least nine EVs have caught fire “without warning,” State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis told ABC News.
Ian was first major hurricane to crash into a region with widespread EV adoption, Eric Fredericton of recycling nonprofit Call2Recycle told ABC.
Saltwater is an electrolyte — a chemical which helps transmit electric charge.
The saltwater flooding of a fully charged electric battery can create a dangerous “salt bridge” between the positive anode and negative cathode.
This can create the ingredients for a sudden, uncontrolled transfer of energy — creating a short circuit and, sometimes, a persistent fire.
While the fires have impacted a vanishingly small number of Florida’s EVs, they have become political grist for the state Republican Party.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) accused the Department of Transportation in a letter last week of giving “most consumers … the potentially life-threatening misimpression that their EVs will continue functioning properly after saltwater submersion—much like gas-powered vehicles.”
The risk of combustion also “has forced local fire departments to divert resources away from hurricane recovery to control and contain these dangerous fires,” Scott wrote in another letter to EV manufacturers.
While rare, some of these fires were “surreal, and frankly scary,” Patronis wrote in an open letter to Elon Musk, the chief executive EV giant Tesla.
For example in North Collier, Fla., near Naples, firefighters put out six EV blazes — their first ever experience with such fires, E&E News reported.
One burning EV in North Collier continuously reignited, despite being constantly doused with “tens-of-thousands of gallons of water” — before catching fire again, later, on the tow truck, Patronis wrote Musk.
In addition to their tendency to suddenly catch fire, putting out a burning EVs requires five or six times as much time and ten times as much water as a burning gas-powered car.
As the car market goes electric and major storms increase, this risk will only grow, Patronis added.
“As [EVs] grow in popularity, this is a potential threat that we’re going to have to deal with,” he told ABC News.
In his letter to Musk, Patronis demanded that manufacturers such as Tesla — which, he noted, had received immense public subsidies — take a more proactive role.
“The unfortunate reality is that there is a population of vehicles that could spontaneously combust, putting our first responders at risk, and the manufacturers are nowhere to be found.”
He described a scenario in which a family returned from Ian to a totaled home — not from wind or waves, but because a storm surge into the garage caused the EV to explode.
“That’s a risk that requires more of a response from manufacturers than just telling consumer to consult the owner’s manual,” Patronis wrote.