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Why Electric Cars Could Be Safer than Gasoline-Powered Ones

Sure, lithium-ion batteries have risks, but so do gasoline-powered cars.
November 26, 2013

As I write in another story today, lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars have some inherent risks, just like any way of storing energy for cars. The point of that article is that those risks can be managed, just as we’ve managed the risks with gasoline (see “Are Electric Vehicles a Fires Hazard?”) .

But there are reasons to think that vehicles using lithium-ion batteries could be even safer than those that run on gasoline.

Gasoline is concentrated in a single large tank. The flammable liquid electrolyte that burns in battery fires is contained in small packages. That provides more opportunities to protect the electrolyte and slow the spread of a fire if one of them has a problem. The recent fires in the Tesla Model S were contained in the front part of the car.

You don’t have to refuel batteries, so there’s no pumping of flammable liquids.

Electric cars have far fewer moving parts than gasoline ones, so there will be fewer things to break down. A large share of the  fires in conventional cars are the result of the failure of mechanical parts.

During normal operation, you don’t set fire to the electrolytes in batteries. But gasoline engines operate by deliberately exposing gasoline to a spark. The engines run hot. It’s a tricky mix to manage.

And electric vehicles don’t emit pollution locally, which will improve air quality in cities, reducing death and sickness—especially in countries like China. Pollution from the power plants that are used to charge electric cars is easier to control and monitor than pollution from millions of gasoline tailpipes.

In summary, there are many reasons to prefer electric cars to gasoline-powered cars in terms of overall safety. Of course, for electric vehicles to have a good name, car makers will need to manage the very real risks that come along with using lithium-ion batteries. 

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