Home » Is An Electric Boat More Dangerous Than a Shark? The Autopian Answers

Is An Electric Boat More Dangerous Than a Shark? The Autopian Answers

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Electric vehicles, whether they be cars, trucks, or boats, are often subject to the public’s misconceptions. It’s always the way with new technology. The very nature of electric boats was the topic of a recent speech from Donald Trump. Are you safer standing on a sinking electric boat, or jumping in the water with a shark?

The speech was delivered at Trump’s rally in Nevada on Sunday. You can watch the clip on Twitter to get the full gist, but it’s a fairly straightforward question. “What would happen if the boat sank from its weight… and you’re in the boat, and you had this tremendously powerful battery… and the battery’s now underwater, and there’s a shark that’s approximately ten yards over there?” asked Trump. “Do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted, or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted?”

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So what is the answer? Should you stay with the boat, or go for the shark?

Real Talk

I’ll answer this in two ways. First philosophically, then scientifically. Put another way—first with vibes, then with physics.

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Let’s say you’re on your electric boat and it starts sinking. You feel the water lapping at your ankles, and you spot a shark swimming a short distance away. If you believe yourself to be at imminent risk of electrocution on the boat, you should absolutely go near the shark instead. That is, if you know you’re about to be electrocuted, that’s certain death. The shark might be nice, and may have zero interest in eating you. Thus, based on probabilities, go hang with the shark.

Of course, this assumes that staying on the boat is certain death. Science and engineering would suggest that’s not the case.

19 Arc One Zero Emissions
Electric boats are becoming popular as technology has advanced to the point where they are now practical. Credit: Arc Boats

If your electric boat sinks, that really sucks. But it’s unlikely to cause you a serious electric shock. Engineers who design electric boats are smart enough to plan for this contingency. They know the boat is going to get wet. They know it might get too wet. Thus, batteries are typically well-sealed against water ingress, and heavily protected against damage.  Ultimately, the same applies to your electric car, if you end up drowning it in a lake.

Indeed, last time Trump brought this up in 2023, Heatmap did the research. Multiple electric boat manufacturers confirmed their batteries are rated to water immersion specs suitable for submariners, or close to it. Indeed, Arc Boats notes that their packs are completely watertight. Their batteries are designed to be safe during sinking. Connectors are highly rated and the company claims to have run all sorts of safety tests on worst case scenarios, including where water might come into contact with high-voltage areas.

03 Arc One Charging
Electric boats typically use big lithium-ion batteries just like EVs. They charge in much the same way, too. The main difference is that instead of having a motor driving wheels, they have one driving a propeller instead. Credit: Arc Boats

Even if the battery was heavily damaged and suffered water ingress, that wouldn’t necessarily put you in immediate danger. If you drop a big battery into the water at the beach, for example, it doesn’t immediately electrocute every fish in the whole ocean. Fundamentally, when submerged, the electrical current wants to flow from one terminal of the battery to the other. It will take the easiest possible path through the water to do so. That’ll usually be the shortest possible distance from one terminal to the other. If you’re in the water a few feet away, the electrons aren’t going to take a hike out of the battery’s negative terminal, come and zap you, and then go back to the positive terminal. They’re going to take—quite literally—the path of least resistance.

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It all comes down to the conductivity of water. Salty sea water is more conductive than the human body. Thus, if the battery’s terminals were exposed under water, current would typically want to flow from one terminal to the other through the water itself. Unless you were right by it, you probably wouldn’t be in immediate danger. You’d want to avoid being between the terminals, lest you get in the way of the current path.

Eboat 1a

illustration: Torch

One situation where this can change slightly is in fresh water. This situation can be a little bit more dangerous. Fresh water is typically less conductive than the human body. Thus, if you’re near the battery, current may prefer to flow from one terminal to another through you instead of through the less-conductive water itself. Don’t get too close, and don’t position yourself between the terminals, and you’re probably going to be okay.

The phenomenon of getting shocked in a body of water is typically called electric shock drowning. The combination of electric shocks and water is a poor one. You might survive a given electric shock on land, but if it incapacitates you and you slip beneath the water, you can be in much greater danger.

This phenomenon has a long history— after all, electric boats are not the first to use electricity. Most powered boats have some kind of battery system on board, and many even use inverters to generate AC power for running appliances. Some boats are also capable of being hooked up to shore power—usually an AC grid feed when they’re at the dock. All of these can pose risks. Indeed, you’d be well advised never to swim at a marina—a faulty shore power system could electrocute you far more easily than a well-sealed electric boat battery.

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Li Ion Battery Pack
Electric boat batteries are typically well sealed against water ingress, and are designed to be safe even in sinking scenarios. Credit: eDyn

In any case, if there’s a battery with exposed terminals in the water, you probably don’t want to sit on it or near it. But it still probably won’t pose an immediate electrocution risk. What’s most likely happening is that the battery is filling with water, which is short circuiting a ton of cells in the pack to each other, all at once. The battery will be dumping energy into the water, creating lots of bubbling as it splits the water through electrolysis. The cells will also probably release toxic gases and the battery may catch fire. That’s worth watching out for, but it’s not an electrocution risk, and it’s not immediate. As an example, we’ve seen a Tesla catch fire underwater—but nobody was electrocuted in the event.

An electric boat merely sinking doesn’t pose much electrocution risk. Just get off it and swim to safety. You obviously aren’t driving it back to the dock at this point anyway.

Eboat 2

illustration: Torch

However, if your electric boat hits rocks or crashes with another craft, that’s more likely to be dangerous.  Your prime concern should be avoiding a damaged battery or high voltage wiring. Industry convention has this clearly marked in orange. High voltage lines could be exposed, or the battery housing could be cracked open.  A modern battery’s management system will typically shut down as much of the battery as possible in this event. However, even when “shut down” the battery still contains a great deal of energy which can be discharged through the water or damaged wiring.

In these scenarios, you want to get clear of loose wiring and battery components. If you feel any tingles, that’s a great motivator to get away from whatever’s causing it. It’s unlikely, but a broken or damaged craft could have high voltage cabling coming in contact with metal hardware, like railings or ladders. If you grabbed such a railing, you might be effectively in circuit with one terminal of the battery. if you then lowered yourself in to the water, you might form a circuit with the other terminal, and put yourself in harms way. For this reason, Formula 1 drivers are advised to jump clear of their cars in the event of a bad accident. You’d be well advised to do the same if your electric boat was badly damaged.

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Marcelo Cidrack Seke2awwf7a Unsplash
Toothy boi is probably a bit scarier than the sinking e-boat, huh.
Credit: Marcelo Cidrack

Ultimately, if your electric boat is merely sinking, you don’t need to flee. You’re safer near it than near a hungry shark. If your boat is badly damaged, though, you’ll want to avoid any damaged wiring or battery modules and try to jump clear of the wreck.

Still, the decision you make ultimately comes down to your own beliefs and personal preferences. For Trump, it was an easy call. “If there was a shark, or you get electrocuted?” he postulated. “I’ll take electrocution every single time. I’m not getting near the shark.” And that’s fair enough.

Image credits: Arc Boats, eDyn, Marcelo Cidrack via Unsplash license, Drawings by Lewin Day

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Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
6 days ago

What’s the old statistic about more people killed by tipping vending machines on themselves than shark attacks per year?

Jeff Marquardt
Jeff Marquardt
8 days ago

Personally I don’t feel very concerned about either. I’ve been on many scuba dive and snorkeling trips and have seen all kinds of sharks close up, even in chummed water and while I still respect and am cautious, I don’t think its very dangerous. Also, having played with all kinds of boats, I never once thought there would be a risk of electrocution from a battery, I can’t think of one case that I read which mentioned electrocution due to sinking boats.

If it were me I would have to judge how bad of shape the boat is in, how far from shore, what kind of sharks there are or other variables to make a decision on whether to stay or swim.

Lost on the Nürburgring
Lost on the Nürburgring
8 days ago

Or, you could put on your leather jacket, get on your electric motorcycle, say, “Ayyyyyyyyyyyyy,” and then jump the shark.

05LGT
05LGT
8 days ago

I vote put out the fires, shore up the leaks, pump out the water and establish propulsion and steering. Sharks and batteries? Both are better than endless water.

Autojunkie
Autojunkie
8 days ago

Salt free and shark free here in the Great Lakes region. We don’t have to worry about the shark part of the dilemma.

Drew
Drew
8 days ago

What if I leap from the boat, grab the shark’s fin, and ride the shark to safety?

05LGT
05LGT
9 days ago

Thank goodness gas, diesel and kerosene are so safe on damaged sinking boats….

FFS.

Last edited 9 days ago by 05LGT
ES
ES
8 days ago
Reply to  05LGT

nightmare fuel indeed. watched far too ww2 movies as a kid, but the sailors either screaming in the flames of the sinking ships, or desperately trying to outswim the oil slicks before they ignited…

05LGT
05LGT
8 days ago
Reply to  ES

The documentaries / training films aren’t fun either.

Mike F.
Mike F.
9 days ago

Well thank goodness for that connection to MIT. Otherwise, he might have brought up some sort of really dumb scenario to use for bashing electric power. (I assume that was the point, because otherwise……)

Last edited 9 days ago by Mike F.
Randal Son
Randal Son
9 days ago

He was trying for a Reagan-style parable. Voters have to choose between Biden (EV Boat,) or Trump (Shark.) Still makes no sense, out here in reality-land.

Ross Fuller
Ross Fuller
5 days ago
Reply to  Randal Son

you’re giving him too much credit; this is the guy who said rising oceanic water levels would result in more beach front property, that windmills give people cancer, etc. – dude just doesn’t understand basic scientific concepts.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
9 days ago

Keep in mind that the man pondering the question choose to view an eclipse with naked eyes rather than the myriad of options he had available. I’m not being political: that’s straight up piss-poor judgment.

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
9 days ago

“The wise are instructed by reason, average minds by experience, the stupid by necessity and the brute by instinct.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero 106 BC – 43 BC

Jon Benet
Jon Benet
9 days ago

I really want to do The Great Loop. I want to convert something like an 36′ American Tug to electric. ELCO makes some real good electric inboards. A large solar array built in to the roof and a diesel electric generator could be used to charge, as well as shore power. 6,000 miles up the Atlantic into the Great Lakes and then down the Mississippi to the Gulf is a lot of diesel. If you could draw as much electric from solar than you use it’s a free trip. It’s like RV but on the water.

Daniel OConnell
Daniel OConnell
9 days ago
Reply to  Jon Benet

That’s something I’ve long wanted to to as well. In my searches I ran across this electric converted canal boat.
Alas, it was far out of budget when I also found out it was for sale.
http://www.slowboatcruise.net/2023/06/read-about-past-adventures-of-slowboat.html?m=1

Rhymes With Bronco
Rhymes With Bronco
8 days ago
Reply to  Jon Benet

Sounds like an amazing trip. I hope you do it and that don’t have to make the electrocution/shark decision.

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
9 days ago

From the same stable genius who said that magnets don’t work when they’re wet. Science is hard.

Johnpmac
Johnpmac
9 days ago
Reply to  Dodsworth

Well, it’s not that hard.

RS me
RS me
9 days ago

Has anyone actually looked into whether you could actually be electrocuted by a battery submerged in salt water? If there is no difference in electrical potential, current can’t flow. I would think that the water surrounding a person would be more or less equally potential. I would think this is like the bird on a high voltage power line situation.

Ecsta C3PO
Ecsta C3PO
9 days ago

Isn’t it a bit weird that he accidentally concluded with a pro-EV statement?
Starts by propping up EV boats as this scary thing (comparable with sharks) and finishes by saying “nah, sharks do be scary though, I’ll take the boat”

Strangek
Strangek
9 days ago

Dear Leader always comes up with the most interesting thought exercises for us! It’s because he’s the most smarter one there is!

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
9 days ago

Electric boats have been around and not electrocuting people since at least 1893. The Elco boats used at the Chicago World’s Fair were advertised as “Absolutely safe”.

Daniel OConnell
Daniel OConnell
9 days ago
Reply to  MAX FRESH OFF

To be fair, cigarettes and radium water were advertised the same way at one point.

Jeff Brown
Jeff Brown
9 days ago

To say I’m disappointed that the Autopian editorial staff decided to publish this post is a cosmic understatement.

Stoney got got (potentially)
Stoney got got (potentially)
9 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Brown

I wouldn’t be too hard on them. They just seem to sometimes be way too optimistic about the community here, evidenced by some of the posts actually getting likes. Even if it is a few shitposts or trolls…still. Too optimistic sometimes, I suppose.

Spikersaurusrex
Spikersaurusrex
9 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Brown

Well, if you ignore the politics in the comments (I know, I know), it’s an interesting article and there are actually some informative and some funny and some informative and funny comments. The post itself doesn’t appear to have any political motivation. I didn’t see the footage from the rally and I’m still not sure what the candidate’s point or answer to the question was.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
9 days ago

Neither is he. There is no point with a brain made of crap….

Banana Stand Money
Banana Stand Money
8 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Brown

As others have said, this isn’t political. This is simply an example of a public figure recounting an imaginary scenario with humorous results. I don’t see how this should be treated any differently if it were from another public figure like Elon Musk, Howard Stern, or the current POTUS. I applaud the editorial staff for acknowledging the ridiculousness of the clip and reviewing the science behind it via the wonderfully quirky Autopian lens.

Last edited 8 days ago by Banana Stand Money
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