Electric Vehicles: Safety and More
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2011
In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama declared his commitment to having a million plug-in or advanced-technology vehicles on the road by 2015. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, the Administration is proposing, among other measures, a $7,500 rebate for electric cars and a grant program to help communities with infrastructure including charging stations.
The United States, China, and Europe have placed big bets on the successful adoption of electric vehicle (EV) technology. And the stakes are not just a cleaner environment and less reliance on oil. The economic consequences for the American auto industry would be enormous if we aren’t able to successfully launch these new products in which billions of dollars and the hopes of so much of the industry have been invested.
The National Electrical Code® will be a central document for proponents of EVs, and changes have already come into the new edition of the code that address these developments. But they only scratch the surface of the safety issues that have to be dealt with for the introduction of this technology to succeed. When a development such as this takes place, NFPA cannot sit back and wait for the proposed code changes to arrive with the next cycle. We must look ahead, anticipate where the needs will be, and lead the way to ensure appropriate safety measures are in place as the new technology is introduced.
Last year, NFPA received a $4.4 million grant from the United States Department of Energy to create a program to train emergency responders on how to deal safely with accidents involving electric vehicles. We have worked closely with the automobile companies to begin the process of educating fire departments and other emergency responders about EVs. Working with Chevrolet and OnStar, we conducted training sessions around the Chevrolet Volt in six cities, and we are talking with other automobile manufacturers about how we might develop similar collaborative arrangements.
In addition to first-responder safety, massive infrastructure changes must be made to ensure adequate opportunities to charge automobiles in public places and commercial settings. We must consider how people can safely install quick-charging stations in their garages. There will be questions about fire protection in storage facilities containing large numbers of lithium and lithium ion batteries. We’ve talked to the Department of Transportation about the safe transportation of batteries by truck, rail, and airplane.
I have no doubt that all these questions will be answered, but we will not have the luxury of seeing the answers develop over time. NFPA and other organizations, along with the affected industries, enforcement officials, first responders, and the research community, must move quickly to keep up with the waves of new EVs expected to hit the streets in the years to come.
NFPA will stay ahead of the curve. We are reviewing additional fire-protection concerns that will probably arise as hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles are sold in the United States over the next few years, and we’re working with our technical committees on those issues. We are seeking government and industry support for research projects that the Fire Protection Research Foundation can undertake to answer some of the threshold questions crucial to EV technology.
NFPA’s mission is safety. But our EV initiatives will do more than that — they will also help our country with its pressing environmental and economic needs.