Until now the only electric car to have caught on fire in the wild was the Tesla Model S. In that case road debris punctured the battery pack, short circuiting some cells, causing a fire, in two situations. A couple other Model S’s were in extreme wrecks, such as torn in half, and catching fire following the collision. Back in 2011 a Chevy Volt caught fire in a storage yard after being crash tested, which caused a politically motivated uproar even though that accident did not occur in natural circumstances. The Nissan Leaf had not suffered any such event, even when a few Leaf’s were crushed during the magnitude 9 earthquake that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Last year a fellow posted a video on YouTube where he destructively tested some battery cells from a Nissan Leaf pack. He punctured the cell, without producing anything more than a puff of smoke, and used a propane torch to try and set one on fire, with no effect. The cells even continued producing voltage after that abuse.
Hence, one would think the Nissan Leaf is (relatively) safe from fire.
However, yesterday a video was posted to YouTube showing a Nissan Leaf on fire. No information is available in the video, and we see on the MyNissanLeaf website that someones bosses wife had posted this video and had no further information. The person whose Leaf burned didn’t pop in to say anything.
With all of nine seconds of video and no further information, lets do a little forensics.
The most obvious thing is that whatever happened engulfed the passenger compartment with fire in a big way. One hopes the occupants were able to escape whatever happened.
I’m guessing the battery pack isn’t even on fire. I think if the pack was on fire there’d be more fire underneath the car. Instead the underside isn’t involved in fire, and the fire visible under the car appears to be on the far side.
Let’s compare with the Model S car fires.
This is the first one, which occurred in Kent Washington. The fellow had been driving down the Interstate, struck something, within a couple moments the car warned him something was wrong and he must pull over immediately, and we see the result.
This one occurred similarly, near Nashville Tennessee.
This was in Mexico, a fellow had been driving at over 100 miles per hour through a small town in the Yucatan Peninsula. He smashed through a concrete barrier, a fence, totalled the car, and was in good enough condition so that he and his buddies were able to flee on foot. Their car burned.
This was in Hollywood, and occurred after a Model S was stolen from a car dealership and taken on a joyride. The car split in half, the driver killed, the rear half of the car wedging itself in the doorway of a Synagogue, and the front half catching fire.
Another Model S fire occurred in the mountains outside Los Angeles when a fellow drove his car off a 500 foot cliff. Needless to say he didn’t survive, and the car caught fire. I don’t have a picture of that one.
The difference I want to highlight is that with the Model S fires the battery packs were clearly involved, and there was fire clearly visible in the undercarriage. This Nissan Leaf fire doesn’t appear to have fire in the undercarriage.
Another difference is that the Model S was explicitly designed to channel fire towards the front of the car. Tesla’s engineers thought that would keep the car occupants safer, and we do see that the passenger compartment remained intact even though the car was destroyed by fire.
Whatever’s happening with this Leaf is different. It may be that the pack actually is on fire, and that the Leaf wasn’t designed to channel fire away from the passenger compartment.
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