How Safe Are Electric Cars?

Safety is a top concern for everyone. Understandably so. With the staggering number of accidents and deaths on our road systems, it’s a wonder we even have the guts to get out of bed in the morning, let alone hop in a self-guided, land-bound missile made of metal and glass and full of combustible liquid — only to merge onto a freeway teeming with thousands of other similar missiles, all going to different locations. (Bet you never thought about driving to work in those frightening terms before).

The point is, we’ve grown accustomed to the safety measures that have been adopted over the years to make sure we don’t run into each other on the road (although some people still haven’t learned them yet). We are oblivious of the painstaking measures that manufacturers take to make sure our gas tank doesn’t explode, or the door doesn’t fall off or accidentally open, or the wheels don’t fall off, or that the brakes actually bring the car to a stop before we hit the car in front of us. The quiet comfort of the cockpit has lulled us into a blase attitude toward normal highway speeds. Even the speeds we travel in our neighborhood would be nerve-racking, if not terrifying if we were on roller skates.

So how do we relate with new technologies as they enter our normal transportational lives? We panic! “OMG, is it safe?” We eye it with careful suspicion and ask the begging question: “what happens if I crash?” These are relevant questions, especially if you’re talking about a home-built or converted EV.

So how safe is an electric vehicle (EV)? Does it emit fumes? No. Does it require special attention? Not really. Does it drive differently? Not especially. What happens when you crash? About the same thing as any other vehicle. The main difference is that there are no combustible liquids to deal with. This should be a relief to everyone, especially emergency response and rescue workers. About the only things to consider in an accident are the batteries — still the EV’s equivalent to the gas tank. If it uses lead-acid batteries, then at worst there will be a corrosive fluid to deal with if the acid leaks, with a slight chance of a small fire. But nothing is going to approach the kind of explosion we’re accustomed to seeing on TV when a car crashes. In fact most modern EVs use either a sealed, or gel battery fluid, in which case there is little to worry about. If you go to the extra expense of getting high-tech batteries, such as Lithium Ion (Li-ion), make sure you get them from a reputable dealer, preferably one that knows what you are going to do with them and approves them for that use. Li-ion cells need to be stacked together efficiently so as to distribute heat well.

OK, so there’s a lot of voltage sitting under you. That’s something to consider. Can I get electrocuted? Not likely, but you could get a really bad shock if there aren’t some safety measures in place. And there is the remote chance of a fire if there is a short in the system somewhere (but that’s the case with anything electrical, including the electrical system in your car right now). A good electric vehicle design includes in-line fuses, isolators and emergency disconnects as safety precautions. This is electricity we’re dealing with. Don’t go poking around if you don’t know what you’re doing. But don’t worry, a good electric car kit or conversion plan will include the necessary safety measures.

Lead-acid batteries may need to be vented in case of overcharge, but safeguards in the design will eliminate any problems there. For example: If you are converting your own vehicle, don’t mount your batteries in the passenger compartment; or if you absolutely have to, make sure to attach a venting system with a fan that will draw any possible noxious gases out of the vehicle. You need not worry about this if your batteries are mounted under the hood or under the body with direct venting to the outside. A carefully calibrated charging system will all but eliminate the possibility of overheating the batteries, which will extend the life of your batteries. Again, a good kit, book or plan will cover this.

The other possible safety issue in an EV is weight. Batteries are heavy. Again, we’re talking mainly about lead-acid variety, since they are most readily available at this time. A lot of lead-acid batteries means a lot of lead, which means a lot of weight. Weight poorly distributed can cause a vehicle to handle poorly, corner badly or wear parts down prematurely. In other words, if you are converting a vehicle to electric, don’t mount your batteries on the roof (duh), and keep the weight ratio as close as possible to the original specifications. In general, keeping the center of gravity low and… well, centered… will keep your vehicle upright and handling properly. Replacing the suspension and the brakes with new ones, and maybe a little beefier will also help. If done right, an electric vehicle can actually have less of a chance for rollover if the weight is mounted low.

Introducing new technology always makes people a little nervous, especially when it comes to safety. But remember, there is no combustible fluid to worry about, so in that case, I would consider an electric car safer than an ICE, or even other alternative fuels for that matter. Other than that a new or converted EV is about the same as any other car. Sure, it may feel a little different (smoother) and sound a little different (quieter), but I think we can get used to that.