Crash damaged electric vehicles

We tend not to think too much about car crashes until we’re unlucky enough to be involved in one. If it’s serious, a panoply of public and private services swing into action, particularly the fire and ambulance services if anyone needs rescuing or treatment. The police will take statements and collect evidence, recovery specialists will move the vehicles, council workers will clear up the road, you’ll inform your insurers and they’ll send out their own assessor, or more likely insist your vehicle goes to an approved garage. 


Everybody knows their job and has done it a thousand times. But what if one of the cars involved is electric or a hybrid? Are the emergency services equipped and trained to deal with them? Big batteries are dangerous, especially if the car has to be cut open to get someone out, and the chance is there of cutting into a battery or high voltage cable?


Eversafe (www.eversafe-project.eu) is an example of the EU quietly safeguarding its citizen. Running from 2012 to 2014, the Eversafe, or Everyday Safety for Electric Vehicles, project focussed on the determination of safety requirements for second generation electrically propelled vehicles. The Eversafe recommendations now form part of the regulations for manufacturers and importers of electric and hybrid vehicles in Europe.


One requirement is that safety data sheets are made available to anyone who might encounter crash damaged electric vehicles in their work (You can download them free from manufacturer’s websites if you’re interested). Based on this information, it is easy to determine that a vehicle is an electric vehicle. Colour coded diagrams show clearly the danger zones where high voltages may be present, and the location of the main isolator switch. All electric vehicles and hybrids have an isolator linked to the airbag activation system so that any crash serious enough to deploy the airbags should also cut the power, but any system can fail, so a physical switch is also fitted. Neither occupants nor rescuers should be in any danger of electrocution following a crash.


In the UK, guidance notes for the Fire and Rescue services are made available by ‘National Operational Guidance’ and the site has extensive advice about all kinds of ‘alternatively fuelled’ vehicles. 


Following a spate of mobile phone fires a few years ago, you might be concerned about the chances of fires in electric vehicle batteries, but the manufacturers and safety authorities are on to that too. Batteries become dangerous when the casing is damaged. There was a suspicion that to reduce size and weight, some phone batteries were insufficiently strong to cope with changes in temperature, especially when fast charging, or pressure changes when carried in an aircraft. Although battery weight is an issue in cars, it’s not essential to shave every gram possible as it is in handheld phones, so they are made strong enough to survive the vast majority of crashes. To be extra safe, the battery in many cars is housed within the central safety cage that protects the vehicle occupants. It’s still possible a car could be rolled over debris or hit by a sharp object, so the manufacturers are required to show that their batteries will not catch fire, even if they are penetrated by a sharp object.


Dealing with any damaged vehicles after a crash is tightly controlled – health and safety and pollution regulations have seen to that – so it’s no surprise that there are systems for dealing with electric vehicles. Registered vehicle recyclers adhere to the Salvage Code of Practice that requires them to have qualified staff to categorise the materials they deal with and ensure they are correctly handled. Specialist recycling companies, such as Salvage Wire, have many years expertise in handling electrical and electronic recycling and run training courses on correctly handling crashed electric vehicles.


Recycling batteries from electric vehicles is a problem. There is good provision for lead acid batteries, and vehicle recyclers are paid for them, but the nearest recycling plants for lithium-ion batteries are in Belgium, Germany and Sweden, and there is a charge to get rid of them, not a payment. However, vehicle manufacturers will accept them back free of charge via their dealer network. There are several initiatives investigating the re-use of electric vehicle batteries for power backup at home or in commercial and industrial settings, so they may eventually be as valuable as lead acid batteries.


All the electronics, controls, motors, sensors and so on are dealt with like the smaller, simpler electronics on conventional vehicles – 95 per cent of each vehicle must be recycled. The EU has just announced a review of electric vehicle legislation and it is likely that the electronic components will have to be treated in the same manner as household electronic components and follow the WEEE (Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment) directive. However, it could be two years before this review is completed and how it will apply to Brexit Britain is anyone’s guess.


Damaged electric vehicles are treated like any other damaged vehicle and categorised under the Code of Practice with no restrictions placed on repair and reuse of vehicles categorised as repairable – if the insurer decides that the vehicle is not repairable, then the vehicle must be dismantled and destroyed. 


Tesla are not happy about this and are unique in being able to communicate with their vehicles; there have been instances in the UK of Teslas being sold as repairable salvage, being repaired and then Tesla switching off the car remotely and denying access to the fast charging network and preventing the new owner from using the vehicle. Andy Latham of Salvage Wire said, “I imagine that if Tesla were able to stop their total loss vehicles being repaired, their customers would see an increase in their insurance premiums because the insurers would not be able to get a return on their salvage.” So far other manufacturers have not followed suit.


It’s become fashionable of late to complain about regulation and call for an end to unnecessary red tape, but it’s reassuring to know that 400-volt batteries won’t be exploding during motorway crashes and the paramedics treating people at the roadside, trapped in vehicles, are not at risk of electrocution.

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