About a year ago, the car freighter "Felicity Ace" sank off the coast of the Azores. He had loaded thousands of luxury vehicles that were on their way to America; including electric vehicles. Now the luxury cars are lying on the bottom of the Atlantic instead of driving on America's roads because the lithium-ion batteries in the electric cars on board probably caught fire. The exact cause of the fire could not be determined.
First shipping company draws consequences
The Norwegian shipping company Havila Kystruten has now drawn consequences from the accident: It is probably the first shipping company in the world to stop the transport of electric cars on its ships. The shipping company's FAQ states: "Electric, hybrid and hydrogen cars are prohibited on board." However, combustion engines are still carried by the ships.
The ship news service TradeWinds quoted the managing director of the Havila Kystruten, Bent Martini, as saying that the ban was the result of a "safety assessment". Martini told the news service: "A possible fire in electric, hybrid or hydrogen cars requires external rescue measures and can endanger people on board and on the ships."
Fire on board ranks among the most dangerous events
For Jochen Schafer, honorary consultant for electromobility of the German Fire Brigade Association, the decision of the shipping company is incomprehensible: "There are systems how fires from e-cars and batteries can also be controlled on board a ship," he says tagesschau.de.
However, the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency is skeptical. Sailors are trained to fight fires on board, "but not professional firefighters," said a spokeswoman for the agency when asked by tagesschau.de. "Fire on board is always one of the most dangerous occurrences." And Christian Bubenzer, an expert at the ship safety department, adds: "In addition, other firefighters and additional equipment cannot be brought to the scene of the fire, as is the case on land."
There is still a lot of catching up to do here, admits Schafer. Sailors had to be trained accordingly. However, some shipping companies had already recognized that there was "a problem": "For example, we work together with the Meyer shipyard to test firefighting specifically on board a ship and to train seafarers."
Time-consuming clearing work
A main problem: Putting out electric car fires is above all time-consuming, even on land. At the end of December, a truck loaded with electric cars paralyzed traffic on the A2 near Magdeburg for hours after it caught fire. In mid-January, near Ulm, a transporter that had loaded electric and hybrid vehicles caught fire – a federal highway had to be closed for several hours.
The reason for the lengthy rescue measures: Batteries can ignite again even after they have been extinguished, which is why they have to be cooled. "For electric cars, we as the German Fire Brigade Association recommend cooling the battery down to 60 degrees Celsius," says expert Schafer.
The difficulty here is to get hold of these batteries. "The batteries in e-cars are permanently installed so that they don't slip out of their anchorages in the event of an accident." This is why special training is required on how to effectively extinguish and cool the batteries in an emergency.
Fires can spread easily
A fire that starts inside a ship poses a particular risk: "E-car fires release highly toxic and corrosive gases, especially hydrofluoric acid and phosphine, which is particularly dangerous in closed loading decks," says the expert Bubenzer from the ship safety department: "And extinguishing battery fires can take up to 24 hours." However, this could affect the stability of the ship if too much firefighting water is used.
In addition, the vehicles transported on board a ship are often parked close together to save space. "But that makes it difficult for electric cars to be reached for firefighting," says Bubenzer. And also make it likely that the fire will spread to surrounding vehicles.
Safety requirements for batteries
But to prevent things from happening in the first place, the International Maritime Organization, IMO for short, is working on ways of detecting fires on ships as early as possible: "In response to the increasing number of incidents involving fires that result from the transport of alternative energy vehicles, the Ship Safety Committee (MSC) presented a proposal in April 2022 to assess the adequacy of fire safety, detection and extinguishing arrangements in vehicle spaces to reduce the risk of fire in ships." From next year onwards, the security committee will deal with the issue, a spokeswoman said when asked by tagesschau.de.
In order to minimize the risk during transport, there are already a number of safety regulations, explains Bubenzer: "These include, for example, separate parking spaces on the loading decks for e-cars." According to Bubenzer, the "International Maritime Code for Dangerous Goods" (IMDG code) also contains "special safety requirements and test standards for lithium batteries".
"Completely wrong signal"
However, expert Schafer also emphasizes that the transport of lithium-ion batteries is no more risky than the transport of combustion engines. That's why he thinks a ban on transport on board the Havila shipping company's ships is the "completely wrong signal" – especially since the shipping company's cruisers themselves have large batteries on board so that they can drive emission-free. According to the shipping company, these are installed in fireproof, insulated rooms.
According to Schafer, the better way to deal with the potential danger of burning electric cars is to train the crew properly so that they can act effectively in an emergency.
So far, the Association of German Shipowners is not aware that German shipping companies are pursuing plans similar to those of the Norwegian Havila Kystruten. Because the association is not aware of an increased number of ship fires caused by electric cars. So maybe the Havila Kystruten will remain the exception.