Check Out This Wild Electric UTV Fire That Happened At SEMA

Sema Utv Fire Topshot

Electric powersports vehicles are pretty hot right now. While electric dirt bikes and dual sport motorcycles are taking off, one electric side-by-side UTV decided to take the “pretty hot” label to heart by smoking like a cigar on the floor of the SEMA show. Uh-oh, that’s a fire.

While nobody’s stepped forward to claim this build, it appears to be a relatively well-known project cooked up by YouTuber Rich Rebuilds. This electric side-by-side UTV with Legacy EV battery modules and a Netgain Motors Hyper 9 motor is a really cool concept. Side-by-sides are awesome at going over rough terrain and electric power should help reduce disturbance to nature compared to a gasoline-powered engine. Unfortunately, something happened that led to an evacuation from the SEMA show floor.

Perhaps it’s the slow, nonchalant manner in which this smoking UTV is being pushed that’s most eyebrow-raising. Should lithium-ion batteries enter the late stages of thermal runaway, the show would have a very big problem on its hands, so to see a guy with a water bottle in hand steadily pushing this thing through the hall feels a bit strange. Once outside, it doesn’t appear to take long for big plumes of smoke to emerge from the UTV, with the vehicle itself resisting firefighters’ attempts to put it out. Then again, a few little fire extinguisher puffs likely won’t do much against an EV battery fire, so I’m not entirely sure what the plan was when it came to extinguishing this thermal event.

It’s worth noting that unlike Bert McCracken or a DiGiorno left in the oven for far too long, electric vehicles aren’t really fire-prone, so to speak. As long as everything’s manufactured properly and the battery pack isn’t damaged, there isn’t much to worry about. However, should a battery pack be damaged or improperly manufactured, a fire could start from a short in the battery pack. If a battery fire breaks out in an electric vehicle, it requires a ton of water to put out and then must be stored well away from anything combustible because it’s entirely possible for lithium-ion cells to reignite well after they’re first damaged. If you want to learn more about EV fires, I highly suggest checking out our article on why flooded EVs can combust.

There aren’t many safeguards other than internal battery firewalls that can stop short-circuiting cells from flaming out of control, be it from improperly-manufactured cells or improper vehicle assembly or water intrusion. However, it’s worth noting that the UTV that let its smoke out at SEMA isn’t a production vehicle, so similar incidents are unlikely to occur at events like the New York International Auto Show. Hell, they’re pretty unlikely to occur at SEMA too, it just seems like the team behind this one UTV had one seriously bad time.

As is obvious by this article, we don’t have a ton of context to go on, here. We’ve just got a few videos, though we’ve reached out to Rich Rebuilds to learn more.

Lead photo credit: Screenshot of Jalopy Jeff/Youtube

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28 Responses

  1. This was not a fire, those are Prismatic NMC batteries. It was a thermal runaway, where a shorted cell (almost certainly from a BMC wire) reached its thermal limit, and kept climbing. Then it vents the gas. It remains hot however, and sets off the one next to it. The batteries used could not catch fire, they vent a non combustible gas/vapor, there was no flame. The fire department knew exactly what they had to do. Nothing. The only reason they ran a hose was in case the short lit the wiring harness on fire, and as long as there is smoke, they are required to be ready to put out a ‘flare up’ even if one is not possible.

    NMC cells release primarily steam and carbon when they fail, with some methane, ethylene, and ethane. (All chemical ingredients used in gasoline.) They release some hydrogen cyanide as well, but it is within the 1 hour exposure limit and breaks down after 48 hours. While that sounds scary, it is less lethal than many of the components of gasoline, and simply mixing with the air reduces it to near nothing in seconds.

  2. The part about battery fires that annoy me is they can be spontaneous. With fuel fires you can smell the leaks PLUS you need a spark.
    That said ,spontaneous battery fires are rare so there’s that

  3. In all fairness, I don’t think the guys seemed too nonchalant when rolling the UTV out of the showroom floor, they look pretty worried and seem to be pushing it as fast as they can.

    The firemen, however, do look a bit puzzled as to how they should proceed and just stand there for quite a bit discussing it, seemingly powerless; I would expect them to have pre-planned procedures for the various hazards they may face, and a showroom with more than a few experimental electric builds calls for a protocol for electrical fires. I get that even with protocol they have to make some decisions on the spot and should remain calm, but there’s a weird “hell if I know” vibe to their intervention. One of them isn’t even wearing any sort of gas mask and repeatedly goes into the smoke cloud like it’s nothing. Hopefully there’s good reason to why they acted like this, but boy does it look bad on camera.

  4. Who thought these are a good idea? Seems like an easy way to cause huge forest fires.
    For ICE-powered OHVs spark arrestors are mandatory in most states as far as I know.
    “the battery pack isn’t damaged, there isn’t much to worry about” ummm gravel and small rock chips flying around on ATV tracks, bashing them on rocky terrain, crossing streams, deep mud puddles, logs, etc. all happen fairly frequently with these.

      1. Petrol tanks are a really rare source of ICE vehicle fires though, people keep mentioning them in ICE-vs-EV arguments but it’s far more likely something related to hot exhaust and either dry grass or other debris (off-road) or almost any fluid leak (oil or fuel, especially pinhole leaks that atomise the fluid) or a wiring fault or somesuch.

        The critical difference is that ICE vehicles, if parked and “cold”, generally don’t catch fire randomly and don’t undergo thermal runaway, which certain types of EV battery do.

      2. Yes, however they rarely cause a self-reigniting battery fire that’s difficult to put out, even if they are unlucky enough that the leaking gas ignites. (Ok, maybe Polaris RZRs might have a higher fire risk than usual.)
        Most of the time though, gas will just leak and evaporate slowly.

  5. I’m starting to wonder if EV batteries need an emergency eject button like on Star Trek when they have to eject the warp core.

    A quick release? Would bring new meaning to “Stop, drop, and roll” (substitute roll for frantically push the car body away from the released battery pack before it goes late-state runaway)

  6. Statistically, EVs are less likely to catch on fire than ICE cars, and hybrids are more likely to burn than either EVs or ICE cars. EV fires are problematic in that they are very hard to extinguish and because they can reignite.

    Humans tend to fear new/unfamiliar things. The news media wants to give us whatever helps its bottom line. When you combine those tendencies in terms of car hazards, we get lots of stories about EV fires and comparatively few stories about ICE and hybrid car fires, making it seem that EV fires are more common than other car fires.

    1. That study is a load of you know what. There are millions of old ICE and hybrid cars on the road and the vast majority of BEVs are probably 5 years old. The failure rate of anything new is not comparable to anything old. I am not saying BEVS will catch fire more often in the long run (though you do have to be very careful with aged batteries), there is simply no reasonable comparison in the area they are trying to make one.

      “…in EV and hybrid vehicles, it seems to be mostly battery issues that can lead to fires, rather than electrical wiring issues”

      So the batteries on hybrids are more of an issue than the ICE system but ICE cars are more flammable?

      More than double the fire rate on hybrids vs ICE?

      The fact (I made up, but is likely true) that cars sold in the last 5 years break down at a lower rate than the average car would not be impressive to learn, but it carries about as much weight as that study.

      You can be skeptical about most nonscientific studies you see and their conclusions. Most are either flawed on accident or on purpose. The data here is likely true, but geeeezzzz is the interpretation horrible.

  7. From what I’ve seen of his builds they do a solid job on them overall, unless they encase the batteries on some sort of super thick box, it doesn’t make sense to even build these things and they be somewhat usable. My thoughts is that something happened in the battery box that they had no control over or could know about. They came to them all ready assembled in their cases so you could only assume they are good to go. Kinda sucks, it looks bad but it happens with any build.

  8. Extrapolating from the frequency of swollen laptop batteries I suspect we’ll see a lot more electric vehicle fires as large lithium Ion batteries proliferate. The German lighting site had a news story today about a large apartment fire started by an electric scooter and the NYFD sees a lot of battery fires.

  9. The fact that most of the batteries are manufactured in a country with the worst quality control means that events like these will be more common. As some who started racing RC with lithium batteries 10+ years ago I’m well familiar with their drawbacks. Add in unsustainable elements and the destruction that the mining process brings in and EV is no better than ICE.

    1. “How much quality control can you pay for?”

      Fellow RC enthusiast here. The cheap no-name lipo batteries are cheap for a reason. Chemistry issues, thin pouches, poorly soldered leads, etc. That said, I’ve put some quality packs through the wringer without issue so far.

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