With decarbonization and climate change policies at the forefront of public and government concerns, we are likely to see many changes in the world we live in. One of the most notable will be the vehicles we drive. By 2030, the sale of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars will be banned in the UK, with other countries following suit. Electric vehicles (EVs) will become more widespread, with the natural consequence that more of them will be shipped to market by sea and many more will be transported on the world’s ro-ro ferries.
In normal operation, electric vehicles may not appear to be more dangerous on their own than their ICE cousins. However, fire departments around the world are finding that this may not be the case when one of these vehicles catches fire. Battery materials make fires very energetic and traditional firefighting techniques may not work. This will differentiate the risk of electric vehicles from ICE cars when transported on board ships.
Statistically, the estimated failure rate (and therefore risk of burning) of an individual battery cell is one in ten million. However, if you consider that an average electric vehicle contains around 7,000 cells, the risk increases considerably. Data from the London Fire Department suggests an incident rate of 0.04% for ICE car fires, but the rate for electric vehicles is more than double that of 0.1%. While it’s unclear whether electric vehicles are more likely than ICE vehicles to catch fire, it’s common ground that the consequences are potentially more disastrous and more difficult to manage.
This is not just a problem for the vehicle transport business. With increased use of electric vehicles, ferry companies will see more vehicles carried on their fleets. This can pose an even greater risk, as the vehicles will be of varying ages and in varying states of charge. Additionally, in a competitive market, ferry operators may offer on-board charging stations to ensure EVs are fully charged for future journeys.
Liability for electric vehicles as cargo
Most standard shipping documents prohibit the shipment of undeclared dangerous goods: a shipper must inform the carrier of the dangers so that they can take appropriate precautions to ensure that the goods can be transported without causing damage; itself, the ship or other cargo. If a declaration is not made and these goods cause damage, the sender is responsible for the damage caused. This has been seen regularly in the container trade with the transport of calcium hypochlorite.
So there is a distinction between ICEs and electric vehicles when considering them as freight classes. ICE vehicles are transported with minimal fuel to minimize risk. ICE vehicles are therefore, for all intents and purposes, inert machines. The component that carries the risk of fire in an electric vehicle cannot be removed; the battery cannot be drained of electrolyte. An electric vehicle contains chemicals which, under the right circumstances, can start and sustain a fire; often a very energetic fire. Additionally, “normal” firefighting techniques are less effective in fighting EV fires. Two common suggestions are to let the vehicle burn or to submerge it in water. Neither is likely to be appropriate within the confines of a vessel.
There is a further complication in that most of the firefighting water used ashore is fresh water. At sea, the fire main is pressurized with sea water, which can have consequences since it is a much better conductor of electricity than fresh water. Another problem with fighting these fires is the gases that are released. The smoke from a Li-Ion battery can be as dangerous as the fire itself. On land this can be vented to the open air and will therefore pose much less of a risk than on an enclosed vehicle deck. Before a crew member can attempt to fight a fire in an electric vehicle, they must don a specialized gas-tight suit, which is much more difficult than a fire suit and an SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus ). The delay in response time will be significant in a situation where the general consensus is that a quick response is the best response.
The responsibility does not lie entirely with the sender. If the carrier has accepted the shipment knowing that they are electric vehicles or has presented itself as experienced and capable of transporting electric vehicles, it must fulfill this market. If a fire breaks out and the crew did not use proper firefighting techniques due to lack of training or equipment, the carrier may well be liable to the owners of the cargo and not may not claim fire exemptions in their shipping document.
Another possibility is that the fire was caused by a manufacturing defect in the battery itself or that the car was damaged while charging. It can be difficult to determine the precise cause, but if it is established that the damage to the battery leading to the fire occurred during loading, the stevedoring company could find itself involved in complex claims. involving large sums.
Fighting an electric vehicle fire
If crews are unaware that fighting an EV fire requires a different technique than fighting a conventional fire on board, it’s easy to see how one incident could result in a total loss. Evidence indicates that current suppression and soaking systems will not be sufficient for this new risk. New systems will have to be designed and integrated into the design of ships.
A high fog system installed at deck level can be a long term solution. However, its effectiveness would have to be weighed against the maintenance requirements to keep it operational and it is unlikely to be viable in the short term as a retrofit. Other solutions may involve labeling and loading best practices so crews can easily identify an electrical fire early on and use the appropriate methods. And spotting any overheating using thermal cameras would allow cooling mechanisms to be deployed to prevent it from turning into a fire.
Transporting an increasing number of electric vehicles will undoubtedly require a change in shipping procedures and documents. It’s not a problem that any part of the supply chain can solve, and it requires the commitment and collaboration of all stakeholders.
Shippers must ensure that they provide the information ships need to ensure safe transport. They will need to tell carriers when EVs are transported, as opposed to ICE vehicles, so stowage can be planned accordingly. When visually indistinguishable between EV and ICE models, this can include a physical mark that allows loaders to easily determine which vehicles are which.
Carriers will need to ensure that their contracts of carriage allocate risk and correctly identify categories of goods. Unidentified electric vehicles must be rejected. Carriers must also ensure that their vessels are properly equipped, which includes carrying appropriate firefighting apparatus and training crew to fight fires. This may mean sending crews on specialist courses or developing specialist courses as an essential part of their training.
It may be that a certain state of battery charge significantly mitigates the risk and OEMs may want to consider a mode of transportation that ensures the battery is in the safest possible state. It is likely that early detection will be key. OEMs may be able to help by developing a way to connect vehicles to a monitoring system using the batteries’ internal sensors.
Regulators will need to review current regulations to determine if they are adequate to address this changed risk. Changes to SOLAS will likely be required in the long term. However, in the short term, regulators and operators should work together to ensure that risks are mitigated in an appropriate and manageable way. This can only be done effectively if it is part of a collaborative process.
Insurers, and especially those in the freight market, need to be aware of modified risk and help ensure shippers are doing what they can to minimize risk. This may require a special EV clause in the policy, whether cargo or hull. P&I clubs, through their loss prevention departments, should continue their excellent work to date in bringing the issue to the attention of the industry.
Rescuers should be consulted and their experience used to help understand how they might fight a fire should it occur. Thinking about what to do once a fire is already lit would seem too late.
In the ferry business, operators should consider whether it is possible to check battery status before transport and whether EV owners should be required to provide proof of compliance with minimum standards. At the very least, EV owners must declare that they are bringing an EV on board. The terms and conditions also need to be updated to ensure that the changed risks of transporting electric vehicles are taken into account and that passengers are aware of any obligations, such as charging conditions.
Although transporting electric vehicles is probably no more dangerous on its own than transporting ICE vehicles, the dangers they present are different and the consequences potentially more serious. Stakeholders should ensure that these hazards are discussed and mitigated, and that the modified risk profile is contractually assigned. Risk allocation in contracts should be a risk prevention tool rather than a disaster response.