Batteries, in their most recent lithium-ion version, are ubiquitous in our everyday life, in smartphones, computers, household appliances, you name it. And they are the central element of Electric Vehicles, EV in short, also called BEV, for Battery Electric Vehicles, of course in XXL format. Although an industrial success story when it comes to the historical cost reduction for the production thereof, most necessary as battery packs usually make up half of the price of EVs, batteries have also come into focus regarding safety, a crucial issue in our risk-adverse societies.
Besides the massive battery pack-induced vehicle weight increase, quite spectacular for the largest models, e-SUVs or e-Hummers, passing the 3-ton or even the 4-ton mark, which makes impact more dreadful for unfortunate pedestrians or smaller cars that could be crossing the EV trajectory, the risk of battery fire is what is catching the attention.
Immediate risk in transport of EVs by ship: A Norwegian shipowner suffered in 2022 the sinking of one of its vessels, carrying some 4,000 vehicles, many of them EVs, following a fire on board. Although the origin of the fire is not yet ascertained, batteries have a track record of dramatic flammability, widely reported about in social media, and this shipowner is now refusing to transport EVs, quite an issue for Norway, the premier destination for electromobility in Europe. Wary shipowners, such as CMA-CGM, one of the top five global sea operators, are even considering transporting EVs in refrigerated containers. Not going in the direction of making EV more affordable, one key issue for the moment for the electromobility market pick-up. Good news would be that imports in the Global West from faraway China would be less competitive than locally manufactured vehicles, stretching the point real thin, though.
Delayed risk: Batteries do not like shocks, a risk enhancer, if not an originator, when it comes to flammability, it seems. Road accidents happen, metal crumping or torn steel fortunately the largest consequence of these chance encounters:
In many accidents, the significant room occupied by the battery pack in EV frames, when it is not the intricate embedment therein (like in recent Tesla models), implies it may likely suffer from the shock. First, evaluating the repair cost proves to be difficult, as EV carmakers do not like close inspection of this crucial element, secrecy must prevail in a fiercely competitive arena. Second, even if the repair is straightforward, the cost may not be small, if full replacement of the battery pack is considered, out of precautionary principle, a strong feature of the car industry. Third, to complete this bleak picture, recent surveys show insurers get so wary about the possibility of damage to the battery pack in the crashes that repair may not even be considered, and elimination of the risk thus decided: destination scrapyard. The UK reference recycler of batteries maintains that 95% of batteries could be repaired, rather than disposed of.
With all of the above, not only will insurance contracts get more expensive, again not good news for the affordability of EVs, but direct disposal goes against the policy trend to make goods more serviceable and repairable, in the context of turning our linear economy into a more circular one, a systemic change that could greatly help to save more and more scarce, thus costly, resources. And battery materials are scarce, tomorrow even more than today, when reading prospective studies about mining of key metals. Not to forget that batteries make up 40 to 60% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in EV production, compared to less than 25 for an Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle: what a waste if early retirement takes place, not too good for the cradle-to-grave life cycle.
A recent study in France details the average cost breakdown of being a car owner: ¼ is for fuel, ¼ is for maintenance and insurance, ½ is for amortization. If safety bears on the cost of the two latter ones, could the expected, though not guaranteed, gain on the former category be outrun?
To conclude on a lighter note, let us not forget that cables to recharge EVs are a safety hazard: watch out not to trip on them.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).