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Are electric cars as safe as petrol-powered cars?

Pure electric Volvo C40 and XC40 Recharge at a charging station

Pure electric Volvo C40 and XC40 Recharge at a charging station

Published Jul 12, 2022

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Johannesburg - There’s no denying electric cars, albeit expensive to buy, come with many distinct benefits, from zero tailpipe emissions and substantially lower day-to-day running costs, refinement and instantaneous grin-inducing torque. But are electric vehicles (EVs) safe?

With more and more EV options becoming available in South Africa, it’s certainly a pertinent question. Indeed, owing to a lack of familiarity with and knowledge of battery-powered cars, local motorists could be forgiven for having a variety of safety concerns about this form of propulsion.

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Is it safe to charge an electric car at home?

For instance, since EVs employ high-voltage electrical systems, is there any danger to the user when plugging in to charge at home (or indeed at a public station)? Well, before any power is allowed to flow between a charging point and the vehicle, an electronic “handshake” between the two needs to be completed.

If any of a range of preconditions is not met – for example, a cable has been damaged or moisture has somehow penetrated the system – the process will not commence, thereby ensuring the safety of the user.

Can you drive an electric car in the rain?

Although you’ve no doubt heard the old saying that “water and electricity don’t mix”, an electric car is also perfectly safe to drive in a thunderstorm, since the battery pack is exceedingly well insulated and thus won’t get wet. If an EV were to be struck by lightning, meanwhile, charge would simply travel through the external metal body before passing safely to the ground, just like any other car.

How safe is an electric car in a crash situation?

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What about crash-test safety? After all, the overwhelming majority of all-electric cars on the market employ lithium-ion battery packs, which are by necessity extremely energy dense (Tesla’s flagship models, for example, each pack a whopping 100 kWh). Well, in most cases these battery packs are automatically isolated in the event of a crash and tend to be very well shielded as well, positioned low in the vehicle and away from common areas of impact.

In addition to its raft of standard safety features, some EV’s for instance, the Volvo XC40 P8 Recharge employs a dedicated safety cage (effectively with built-in crumple zones) that helps protect the battery during collisions.

Are electric cars safer than normal cars?

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Answering this question isn’t quite as straightforward as you might think. In crash-test terms, there are both safe and unsafe combustion-engined vehicles out there, after all, and the same argument could be made when it comes to EVs.

However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in North America says there is growing evidence electric cars are “as safe as or safer” than equivalent petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles. In addition, the safety organisation points out injury claims tend to be “substantially less frequent” for battery-powered cars.

Furthermore, when compared with conventionally powered vehicles, most electric cars benefit from a more favourable weight distribution as well as a lower centre of gravity and reduced vehicle rollover risk. The flipside to that, however, is that electric cars tend to be heavier, due to their battery packs, and this can make them more dangerous for other, lighter cars to crash into.

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But what about those reports you may have seen about Tesla models catching alight overseas? Well, the Texas-based electric carmaker’s figures actually suggest its vehicles are around 10 times less likely to catch fire than cars running an internal combustion engine.

It’s worth considering that most electric cars currently available in South Africa have already faced and passed stringent crashworthiness tests in markets such as Europe and the United States. In fact, of the limited number of electric cars on the South African market that have been tested by Euro NCAP, most boast five-star ratings.

The aforementioned Volvo XC40 P8 Recharge, for example, scored full marks in Europe and was also the first fully electric small SUV to receive the Top Safety Pick+ award from the IIHS in the United States.

Ultimately, there’s no reason to think electric cars as a concept are any less safe – in broad or specific terms – than internal combustion engine vehicles. But just as is the case with their petrol and diesel-engined counterparts, it’s worth checking the ratings to see how particular EVs are scored for occupant protection in the event of a crash and technology that could prevent or mitigate such a crash.

Sources: Volvo, AutoinsuranceEZ

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