You know what’s a nice treat for a cranky-ass writer like myself? It’s when some major media outlet publishes something so delightfully, irredeemably stupid and smug and ill-informed that it’s just begging for a nice, cathartic take-down. Thankfully, our pals across the pond at The Telegraph have served up just this sort of thing for us, piping hot, and dripping with all of the finest, most insipid fear-mongering horseshit you could ask for. This gift is a column written by Allison Pearson titled “We must put a stop to the electric vehicle revolution – before someone gets hurt,” and it’s just as bad as you think. Probably worse.
Essentially, this column is a panicky plea that all electric vehicle production be halted because of the potential dangers of EVs, primarily due to lithium-iron battery fires. Now, these sorts of fires do certainly exist, and it’s absolutely an issue that needs to be continually addressed, no question. But should all EV production be stopped outright? I don’t think so, but perhaps I’m not an expert in electrical engineering like I assume Allison Pearson is. I mean, she obviously considers herself an expert on trans issues, which I guess means she’s good at troubleshooting faulty electrical transformers, right? That’s got to be it. Otherwise, this whole screed would have been written by someone who has only been a television and radio presenter who’s written some romance novels, and that would be absurd, since that would imply this person has no idea what the hell they’re talking about. The Telegraph would never publish something like that, would they?
And yet here is this column that uses last week’s massive fire at London’s Luton Airport as one of its central points about how EV fire danger is being covered up. As Pearson puts it:
It was the same nothing-to-see-here story with the towering inferno this month at Luton airport. At least 125 flights were cancelled after a huge fire, which started on level three of the airport’s multi-storey car park, caused the entire £20 million structure to collapse. Up to 1,500 vehicles are unlikely to be salvageable. A huge deal, you might think. A topic for a heated debate at the very least, particularly as people could have been hurt but, once again, the conflagration has been tamped down. Authorities said the blaze “appeared to have been accidental and began in a parked car, believed to be a diesel vehicle”.
Well, not according to one witness, who managed to snap a picture of the vehicle that was suspected of causing the fire, which looked very like a Range Rover Evoque. There was none of the thick black smoke you would expect with a diesel fire. Instead, the blaze was focused on the front left seat of the car under which – well, I never! – the lithium-ion battery happens to be located in some hybrid Range Rovers.
Okay, great, except the fire was definitely not started by a Range Rover Evoque, it was started by a 2014 Range Rover Sport TDV6 SE, which we know because you can see the damn thing on fire in video and you can even run the license plate if you’re still not sure.
— Sam356345 (@sam35634560605) October 11, 2023
This is some pretty sloppy reporting and writing, saying a car “looked very like a Range Rover Evoque” and then just guessing that even if it was that car – again, it wasn’t – it could have been a hybrid one, and then the battery could have been to blame for the fire. A lithium-ion battery that, again, in the context of her example there, is as fictional as Sasquatch Santa Claus.
Cleantechnica — a website devoted to clean energy, EVs, and sustainability — wrote all about this issue, saying:
The fire department identified the car which started the blaze. There’s video of it. It was a diesel Range Rover, one of the Land Rover group of cars. While there is a diesel battery-electric hybrid option for some of the Range Rover groups, there’s zero evidence that it was a hybrid.
In fact, a front view video of the car shows its license plate, and UK’s Ministry of Transport makes it clear that the car was a 2014 diesel Range Rover Sport, license plate E10EFL. Used car site Car Check confirms this, showing it has tested emissions of 194 g/km, which puts it at the top end of the emissions range for non-hybrid diesel light vehicles. Not only is there no evidence that it was hybrid, there is strong evidence it wasn’t hybrid.
Okay, so if that huge airport fire wasn’t actually caused by an EV, maybe Pearson has some other compelling evidence to bolster her idea that the world is being held at flame-thrower-point by EVs and their lithium-ion batteries, threatening to conflagrate at the slightest provocation. Maybe she has some really compelling evidence, ideally hearsay and involving at least one gazebo? Hey, we’re in luck! Look at this:
It’s not just cars. My gardener friend says he knows of two gazebos that burnt down when the battery pack powering their fairy lights burst into flames, causing third-degree burns to one owner.
Two gazebos! Burned down by unspecified-chemistry battery packs, but ones that were probably lithium-ion! At this rate, will Britain have any gazebos left?
Again, Pearson isn’t wrong that lithium-ion battery fires are nasty things and cause real damage. That’s true! Thermal runaway in these batteries is a real thing, which is what is being referred to here when she quotes Peter Edwards, chair of inorganic chemistry at the University of Oxford:
Someone who really does know the answer is Professor Peter Edwards. He holds the chair in inorganic chemistry at the University of Oxford and tells me he is extremely worried about the “real danger” posed to the public and emergency services by lithium-ion batteries which were developed by his predecessor in the chair, the late Professor John B Goodenough, the so-called “Father of the Lithium Battery”.
“Lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles can develop unstoppable so-called ‘thermal runaway’ fires which burn uncontrollably,” says Prof Edwards. “As well as intense heat, during a battery fire, numerous toxic gases are emitted, such as hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen fluoride. The emission of these gases can be a larger threat than the heat generated.”
(By the way, the fact that lithium-ion batteries were developed by a scientist named John B. Goodenough is just astounding. What an incredible name for a scientist! Goodenough! I love it. If you were looking for evidence that we live in a simulation, there you go, because that is definitely a placeholder name someone forgot to fill in.)
She also notes this about Goodenough:
Towards the end of his distinguished life, the Father of the Lithium Battery told colleagues in Oxford that he didn’t think a mass rollout was wise because of the considerable fire hazard. How lucky we are that our country’s entire future energy strategy isn’t riding on an invention that can explode at will and cause fires it’s impossible to put out…
You know what? Too bad. It’s way, way too late to stop a “mass rollout” because it’s already happened.
While the basics of some of the points in this piece are true – lithium-ion batteries do have the potential to burn quite dramatically (and also days after a crash) – the hard truth is that if you’re genuinely concerned about that and not just desperate for a column topic to get people worked up about, then you’re already deeply and irretrievably fucked. Because lithium batteries absolutely surround us. I can just about guarantee you that if Allison Pearson banged out her column on a laptop, that laptop had a nice fat lithium battery in it. Pretty much every cell phone has a lithium battery.
There are literally millions and millions of lithium batteries around us at all times, and while, yes, they all have some potential to burn, the truth is we’re not all dead. If lithium batteries were as dangerous and unstable as Pearson is trying to claim they are, then walking by any given coffee shop would sound like a July 4th fireworks show finale, with flashes of blinding light and chest-thumping explosions sending hot latte flying everywhere, a near-constant rain of shattered mugs and saucers raining down on the shellshocked heads of everyone inside.
But that’s not how reality works.
Of course, reality does also include things like the car-transporting cargo ship that caught fire possibly as a result of EVs on board – hell, we even know someone who lost a car in that fire – and things like carmakers having to recall thousands of EVs because of fire risk [Ed Note: The ship-fire thing isn’t confirmed to have been caused by EVs, but the recalls for EV fire risk have been absurd. GM recalled every single Bolt! -DT]. Pearson isn’t wrong at all to bring up these points, because when lithium-ion batteries release energy as a result of a thermal event, it’s bad, really bad — arguably worse than fires caused by gasoline. This is all very true.
But what especially sucks about this whole shit-milkshake of a column is that there are real issues brought up here, but it’s all couched in this idiotic cloak of panic and fatalism that does nothing to help anyone. Again, most of the issues brought up here have at least a seed of truth:
What a fiasco the whole electric car thing has become. Too few charging machines and then too many charging machines out of service, forcing people to drive around for a viable charging point, only to end up calling breakdown services for run-down batteries. The mileage the cars can do is a lot lower than advertised, unless you drive at 20mph (perfect in Wales, but hopeless everywhere else). The cars are too expensive, their second-hand value is risible, the batteries only last about 15 years and cost thousands to replace. If, that is, you get lucky and they don’t burst into flames first.
The charging network (save for Tesla’s Supercharger network) is a mess here in America, as well as in the UK. That desperately needs to be improved. EV range is sometimes overstated, though it’s not the issue she makes it out to be here, in that nobody is giving range estimates based on constant 20 mph driving. She made that shit up. And, yes, batteries are expensive as hell to replace, and buying used EVs can be something of a minefield. That’s true!
But most of these are solvable problems. Charging networks will improve – they pretty much have to, and, even better, there’s money to be made when someone finally does get their shit together, so that’s a pretty good incentive. I personally think EV batteries should be standardized and replaceable, but even if no one listens to me about that, I am confident that the tech will gradually improve and battery lifespans will continue to grow, as they have been, and the tech will generally develop, as history has shown it has been.
The premise of this column is ridiculous; calling for a “stop” to a whole technological development of cars because of some accidents and fires is not a serious thing to ask; it only serves to stir turds, vigorously. All kinds of cars catch on fire, and have been catching on fire, for literal centuries. You can go all the way back to Richard Trevithick’s Puffing Devil from 1801, a steam-powered pioneering car that burned itself to slag on Camborne Hill, and car fires haven’t stopped since then.
Sure, the fires aren’t the same as lithium-ion fires, which have their own considerable challenges, but gas-fueled cars catch on fire, and those fires have killed many, many people. So many people have died in car-related incidents, and while each one is tragic, we deal with it by doing all we can to improve safety from engineering and procedural and legal and every other angle we can think up.
[Ed Note: For the record, here’s how the EPA addresses the “EVs are less safe” myth:
FACT: Electric vehicles must meet the same safety standards as conventional vehicles.
All light duty cars and trucks sold in the United States must meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. To meet these standards, vehicles must undergo an extensive, long-established testing process, regardless of whether the vehicle operates on gasoline or electricity. Separately, EV battery packs must meet their own testing standards. Moreover, EVs are designed with additional safety features that shut down the electrical system when they detect a collision or short circuit.
EV fires are nasty, but I’m not convinced EVs are more dangerous than gas cars. I haven’t seen any data to suggest that, and I’ve heard plenty of claims of the opposite being true. -DT].
This is how human development works, and has always worked. We try things, we do our best, and, generally, we don’t just give up, especially not when someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about makes some dumb claims and some good claims, but wraps them in fear and some sort of peculiar anti-progress rhetoric, and gets some digital canary cage-liner rag to print them.
Also, the last line of the column:
Oh dear. Time to go into reverse gear, don’t you think?
… is just embarrassing.
Fuck off, Allison.