How safe are electric cars?

5 minutes

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The 2030 ban on the sale of petrol or diesel cars has put the production of electric cars firmly in the spotlight.

But in the lead-up to the deadline, are electric car manufacturers and the government doing enough to make sure they're safe?

  • The 2030 petrol and diesel ban could usher in the era of electric cars
  • What's being done to make electric vehicle batteries safe?
  • Research into the noise levels of electric cars speaks volumes

Are electric cars as safe as we think? 

The UK government has announced a ban on the sale of diesel and petrol cars no later than 2030 - a deadline that's been brought forwards from 2040. The ban will usher in a new era for alternative fuels.

Electric and hybrid cars may not directly pollute the atmosphere or carry a tank of flammable petrol around with them, but that doesn't mean they're without their own safety concerns.

Writing for LV= car insurance,  motoring journalist Simon Heptinstall (@sheptinstall) talked to Chris Lilly, content manager on the UK's leading green car buyer's guide Next Green Car, (@nextgreencar) about the potential risks and what manufacturers are doing to tackle them.

Do electric cars have any safety features beyond the usual?

'There are no safety features found on plug-in models that aren't found on conventional cars,' says Chris.

However, one feature found only in battery-powered cars could have an impact on safety.

'Regenerative braking isn't specifically a safety feature – it's designed to recapture otherwise lost energy to top up the battery – but as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, a plug-in car will start braking to a greater or lesser degree depending on what setting the driver has it in,' Chris says.

'In the event of someone braking to try and avoid an accident, a plug-in car with regenerative braking could start decelerating a fraction earlier. However, there are no reports into how much this benefits safety.'

The safety risks of cars with large battery packs

When a Tesla Model S's battery ignited in 2013 after the car was involved in an accident, the car manufacturer added a titanium barrier to their cars.

Then, at the start of 2017, another Model S battery burst into flames after an accident - the problem hadn't been completely solved. But does this mean electric cars are any less safe than combustion engine vehicles?

'There have been few issues associated with these problems, though it seems like more because the new technology gets reported on,' says Chris. 'There seems to be sufficient provision from manufacturers for battery safety, and new systems often require greater levels of safety than established technology as people need to be won over to new concepts.'

He also points out that fires involving combustion engines are far more common. Between April 2016 and March 2017, there were 23,505 road vehicle fires in the UK. Since 2010, only 110,000 alternative fuel vehicles have been registered for use on British roads. When you compare that to the 37.5 million total vehicles currently registered, it stands to reason that the vast majority of these fires involve petrol or diesel vehicles.

'It's still safer driving a pure electric car than a petrol or diesel one,' says Chris, 'as batteries are housed in tough casings, whereas a fuel tank is often made of only fairly thin metal or plastic.'

Working safely with high-voltage cars

Another risk is highlighted by the UK government's Health and Safety Executive (@H_S_E‏). It has issued a warning to anyone working with, maintaining or recovering electric vehicles, observing that they 'introduce hazards into the workplace in addition to those normally associated with the repair and maintenance of vehicles'. 

'There is a safety issue to the high-voltage batteries, but this only really becomes a potential problem when work is being carried out on the car,' says Chris. 'The Institute of the Motor Industry has a course for mechanics to learn how to safely work on hybrid and electric cars.'

Does the handling of electric cars improve safety?

'Batteries are usually at the bottom of the car, which means that the largest, heaviest component is placed low down, dropping the centre of gravity as low as possible, and distributing weight between the axles,' says Chris.

'As such, the driving experience is often more enjoyable and safer,' he says. 'With less weight high up the car or beyond the axles, there is less potential for handling problems.'

Are silent cars more dangerous?

'Stop, look and listen' has long been the advice for children who want to cross the road – but what if the car is too quiet to hear? 

The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), which was commissioned by the Department for Transport to find out if electric cars were too quiet, discovered that, 'relative to the number of registered vehicles', electric and hybrid cars and vans 'were 30 per cent less likely to be involved in an accident' than their petrol or diesel alternatives.

However, they are more likely to be involved in accidents involving pedestrians. Research conducted by charity Guide Dogs (@guidedogs), found that 'quiet hybrid and electric vehicles are 40 per cent more likely to collide with pedestrians than cars with a regular combustion engine'.

Thankfully, as the TRL report points out, 'manufacturers are taking steps to independently (ie without legislation) increase the audibility of such vehicles which may reduce the potential risk if noise is a significant contributory factor'.

'Many electric car manufacturers have installed a noise-making device that operates when the car is running at slow speeds,' says Chris. 'This lets pedestrians know that a car is around. More sophisticated technology, such as sensors targeting sound waves to specific pedestrians, is being developed.'

So, how safe are electric cars? As with any emerging transport technology, there could be some new risks associated with the increase in electric vehicles – but this doesn't mean that they're any safer or more dangerous than petrol and diesel vehicles. With electric vehicles due to take over our roads in the near future, more research is needed into making sure that they are as safe as possible.

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