The Felicity Ace and her cargo of thousands of burnt vehicles – some of them electric – built by the Volkswagen Group is now several kilometres beneath the Atlantic. What do we actually know about electric vehicle fires on ships, battery fires in VW EVs and how car-carrying ships are responding to fire risk?
- If Felicity Ace enforced similar guidelines to other carriers, requiring EVs to be carried at less than 50% state of charge, are we just seeing modern vehicles burning without the additional fire intensity seen with EV lithium-ion batteries?
- In 2018, a fire on sister ship Sincerity Ace took 9–10 days to subside with 3,500 cars onboard. The Felicity Ace, carrying almost 4,000 cars, was actively burning for nine days, before towing attempts ended with the ship capsizing.
Observing the frenzied media attention about the Felicity Ace, a 200m-long, 17-year-old vehicle-carrying vessel managed by Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd, it’s clear there was much speculation, but little known, about what was burning aboard.
The early stages of this catastrophe barely registered with mainstream media. But when Captain Joao Mendes Cabecas told Reuters that the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles were ‘keeping the fire alive’ suddenly the world’s news outlets shot the story to front page.
Headlines prior to capsize declared ‘EVs may not have sparked this cargo-ship fire, but they’re a raging inferno now’ and ‘Electric vehicles make it harder to quell fire on Felicity Ace’. But now, it’s doubtful we’ll ever know what started – and what fuelled – the fire that sent a reported $400 million worth of luxury passenger cars to the depths of the Atlantic.
So, what do we actually know about battery fires in VW electric vehicles, ship and ferry fires caused by EVs, and fire propagation where EVs are involved?
A fire on a passenger ferry was caused by an EV in 2010
The first electric vehicle traction battery fire on water occurred on the vehicle deck of the MS Pearl of Scandinavia on 17 November 2010, as it was travelling from Oslo to Copenhagen.
The EV was a rebuilt Nissan Qashqai, which had been converted to a BEV by a Dutch enthusiast. When the battery went into thermal runaway, the car was connected to a 220V charging station via an extension cord manufactured by the owner so it could be used in multiple countries – a recipe for potential disaster in any situation. The total battery capacity of the converted Qashqai is unknown.
However, the official report by the Danish Institute of Fire & Security states the fire originated in the battery pack, but it wasn’t possible to determine exact cause. There were other EVs on the same ferry, but thankfully the fire didn’t spread to those vehicles.
Charging began at 2% battery state of charge; when fire broke out the vehicle was at 53%. The fire alarm system first alerted crew to smoke at 5:58am and the sprinkler system commenced initial suppression. Firefighters from Sweden were lowered to the ferry by helicopter and the fire was reported extinguished at 7:51am. All passengers and crew observed evacuation guidelines and disembarked safely.
The Danish Maritime Authority responded by temporarily banning charging for EVs and other vehicles on all vessels. But the MS Pearl of Scandinavia wasn’t the first fire on what’s known as a ‘ro-ro’ (or roll-on, roll-off) passenger vehicle ferry; three other incidents on the Commodore Clipper, Lisco Gloria and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, all in 2010, were all under investigation following car-deck fires.
This converted Qashqai on the MS Pearl of Scandinavia is the only electric vehicle confirmed to have caused a marine vessel fire to date.
Three Volkswagen electric vehicles have caught fire since 2017
Electric vehicle battery fires are very rare, a fact we’ve proven through our research project EV FireSafe.1 That’s backed by the fact that Volkswagen Group have been selling plug-in EVs since 2014, with over 760,000 purchased in 2021 alone, but we’ve only been able to verify three lithium-ion traction battery fires in VW electric vehicles.
In December 2017 an e-Golf caught fire in Germany, with 21 firefighters attending. The incident controller said it was the first EV incident for their crews, stating: ‘We have never had such a use with high voltage technology in the community here.’ Following battery cooling and fire suppression with water, crews rolled the e-Golf into a container of water to reduce risk of reignition. The cause of the fire is unknown.
In August 2021, an VW ID3 owner unplugged her EV from kerbside charging in The Netherlands, placed her child in a car seat and then noticed smoke coming from the rear of the vehicle. Both mother and child were unharmed, but the ID3 was completely destroyed by fire. Cause is currently unknown. Interestingly, a first-generation Nissan LEAF parked behind was damaged by fire, but the battery pack did not ignite.
More recently, on 13 February 2022, a restaurant owner in Brussels called fire services about a ‘burnt smell’. Fire crews tracked the source to a private residential underground carpark where the building’s smoke and heat exhaust system had engaged due to an ID3 being fully involved in fire. It was parked by itself and not connected to a charging point.
The close proximity of an exhaust inlet to the ID3 enabled better visibility for crews; however, they were unaware they were dealing with an EV initially. The vehicle was taken to ground level by a tow truck and submerged in a water container the Belgian fire service has developed for trial with electric vehicle suppression; this type of suppression/containment method is gaining popularity with some fire agencies, but isn’t always recommended by EV manufacturers.
How are car-carrying vessels responding to EV potential risk?
Catastrophic fires onboard car-carrying vessels occur more frequently than you might think. In February 2017, The MV Honor had an upper vehicle deck fire caused by a starter motor solenoid, the Auto Banner had an overheated vehicle leading to fire in May 2018, the Grande America capsized in March 2018 following a fire started by a vehicle, the Sincerity Ace2 went up in smoke on New Year’s Eve 2018 with the loss of five crew lives and the Diamond Highway, carrying 6,300 vehicles, was abandoned in June 2019 due to fire.
The reason you haven’t heard about these fires is that they didn’t involve electric vehicles.
These losses combined with the rapid acceleration to electrified transport and the known difficulty of extinguishing lithium-ion battery fires in any situation – let alone on a floating vessel surrounded by salt water (which can’t be used to fight a lithium-ion battery fire) – has led ferry and ship owners to action new safety measures when transporting EVs.
This is sensible given the obvious potential risk when transporting EV on ships; primarily the uncontrolled movement of rolling cargo causing damage to the battery pack and initiating thermal runaway3 (an unstable chemical reaction within battery cells leading to ignition).
Early tests by a number of global battery experts indicate that lithium-ion batteries at a lower state of charge (SoC) – usually under 50% – are unlikely to support thermal runaway.
That’s why United European Car Carriers (UECC), a company specialising in rolling cargo, have specified a minimum 20% & maximum 50%4 SoC on electric vehicles, while requiring that battery EVs have ‘sufficient battery power to safely operate basic functions of vehicle’, while plug-in hybrid EVs should operate with EV mode disengaged.
Likewise, Wallenius Wilhelmsen requires a maximum SoC of 50%,5 while also promoting their services as electric vehicle supply chain experts for some of the world’s biggest EV manufacturers, such as MG SAIC.
In fact, most of the world’s largest shipping companies now require EVs to have a lower state of charge prior to transport of electric vehicles, while also being upbeat about their ability to service this growing sector and provide EV charging infrastructure in port and potentially onboard.
Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd, the owner of the Felicity Ace, are no exception. In response to a Q&A concerning transport of electric vehicles, they state on their website6 ‘Assuming that the battery charge is sufficient for loading and unloading, the remaining battery capacity is loaded with an upper limit of 50% charge to prevent thermal runaway of the battery. After loading, the power is turned off to minimize power consumption.’
What about EV fire spread in carparks?
EV battery fire research is at the very start of a data-gathering journey, but an incident in EV-loving Norway provides an interesting look at fire spread involving EVs.
In January 2020 the Stavanger Airport multi-level carpark in Sola collapsed after an intense fire that also destroyed 300 vehicles. An unknown number of these were assumed to be electric vehicles, which is a safe guess given Norway’s high uptake of passenger EVs.
The Research Institute of Sweden (RI.SE)7 were tasked with answering the high-voltage question asked following this incident, concluding ‘…electric vehicles did not contribute to the fire development beyond what is expected from conventional vehicles.’
Additionally, the RI.SE report pointed out that modern internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles have a ‘higher fire load and are on average wider than older vehicles’, giving a ‘more intense course of fire than older (ICE) ones’.
EV batteries are ‘keeping the fire alive’ on the Felicity Ace
Captain Joao Mendes Cabecas’ sound bite was media gold and possibly correct; electric vehicle lithium-ion traction battery fires are rare, but when they do happen, they typically require far more time, firefighters, water and resources than a traditionally fuelled car fire.
Whether a burning EV battery is unattended or under offensive firefighting attack, it will almost certainly burn for longer than ICE vehicles. Incident reports uncovered during our research commonly found EV fires took anywhere between three and five hours to extinguish, whereas an ICE fire may take less than an hour to make safe.
While Volkswagen Group have confirmed ID4s were aboard the Felicity Ace, we do not know the total number, whether they were grouped together on a single vehicle deck, or what their individual battery state of charge was.
Assuming Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd were following their stated guidelines, with a sub-50% SoC, what we potentially witnessed was thousands of modern vehicles burning over a long period of time, without the additional intense and prolonged fire behaviour of EV batteries.
A scenario like this appears more likely when we compare this fire with a similar event. The Sincerity Ace, which caught fire on New Year’s Eve 2018 carrying 3500 cars, was towed back to Japan from 9 January 2019, meaning the fire took nine to ten days to burn out.
The Felicity Ace, carrying almost 4,000 cars, first sent a Mayday message on 16 February 2022; the fire had subsided enough for a salvage crew to board and attached a tow line on 25 February, meaning it took 9 days for the fire to burn out.
And, as per the RISE report on Stavanger Airport, even assuming electric vehicles on board the Felicity Ace were limited to 50% battery and ICE vehicle tanks similarly only partially filled with fossil fuels, thousands of modern electric and ICE vehicles packed into enclosed close quarters aboard a floating carpark are unlikely to become anything but a ‘raging inferno’.
The Felicity Ace fire is an environmental and economic catastrophe, there’s no mistaking that. Only time will tell exactly if and how EVs contributed to the blaze, how suppression systems need to change and what learnings will make future carriage of EVs safer.
What do we still need to learn about EV fires on ships & ferries?
As always, lots. Throughout 2022, we’ll be working with emergency agencies to better understand land-based risks and test suppression products that may have application to ships and ferries.
For more information, go to evfiresafe.com
- Some experts at the 2020 Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) seminar suggested reopening the investigation to the Sincerity Ace ship fire in 2018 to re-examine the role EVs played.
2013, Federal Ministry of Traffic, Construction and City Development, Germany – fire safety in connection with the transport of vehicles with electric generators or electrically powered vehicles on ro-ro and ro-pax ships
2016, DNV GL – Fires on ro-ro decks
2021, UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency, Electric vehicles onboard passenger ro-ro ferries (in draft)
NFPA, Fire Research Foundation, Modern Vehicle Hazards in Parking Structures and Vehicle Carriers