Are Hybrid Cars Prone to Fire?

The automotive industry maintains the cars are safe, but many consumers, experts and fire investigators remain leery

A Chicago driver who says she almost lost her life in a fiery crash on the Eisenhower Expressway in April emerged bruised, shaken, and with one pressing question: was it her hybrid vehicle that caused the rapid and accelerated fire?

The young woman sent via email a description of the accident to NBC Chicago:

"We watched my car literally blow up. Explosions, fireworks, awful, awful, awful. It was from a movie," she wrote.

In researching an answer, an array of experts in both the automotive field and fire investigations said the same thing: the jury is still out on this question.

Expert sources with whom NBC Chicago spoke said there are no answers yet because there are no field studies or statistics tracking fires in hybrid-involved accidents.

Hybrids and the electric cars coming to the roadways are too new to have any established patterns, they said.

"You're taking two distinct technologies that each have their own inherent safety hazards in terms of fires and now you're bringing them together in one place, on the same four wheels," said Mike Schulz, a fire investigator and explosion expert. "The presence of the electrical component of the hybrid technology means that I have that many more chances for sources of ignition."

Schulz added: "I think a lot of the testing on how this is going to work out, unfortunately, is going to be done by the public as they're driving down the roadway."

Carmakers and their industry are much more definitive when it comes to this question, saying safety is engineered in, and consumers need not worry.

The Auto Alliance, an industry group, said in a statement:

"Larger batteries are contained in an extremely strong protective case and put in a vehicle area that’s very unlikely to be penetrated in a crash. Also, drivetrain management computers continuously monitor all system functions performing hundreds of tests each minute. In the event an abnormal condition is detected, all high voltage circuits are disabled and high voltage is contained inside the protective case.

Additionally, safety mechanisms are in place to shut off the engine and disconnect high voltage batteries if an airbag is deployed or if there is a sudden deceleration (these are both indications of an crash). Also high-voltage cables and components can be heavily insulated, shielded and isolated."

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