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Fires: Now a burning issue

We do not officially know what caused Fremantle Highway to go up in flames this week. But it is time to start asking tough questions about the safety of electric vehicles on car carriers

EVs have gone way beyond ‘first kid on the block with a Tesla’ bragging rights and production volumes will increase exponentially. We need to be sure ships can carry them safely

ONE person killed, several badly burned, an estimated $13m economic loss for Mercedes-Benz alone and a total outlay many times that amount when the claims finally land on the desks of marine insurers.

The blaze on pure car and truck carrier Fremantle Highway (IMO: 9667344) this week will clearly rank among the worst casualties of the current policy year.

It will also reignite — to use an appropriate word in the context — the controversy over fires on ships, which represents a growing problem across the industry right now.

There were more than 200 of them in the past year, with 64 vessels lost to fires over the past five years, making it the second most common cause of loss, we are told by Allianz Global Corporate & Speciality.

Many of these are not your dad’s engine room fires. Of late, the issue appears most acute on PCTCs and boxships.

Increasingly, shipping and marine insurance circles are starting to ponder the risks of lithium-ion batteries on the electric vehicles that make up an increasing proportion of PCTC cargo.

We do not yet know officially what happened on Fremantle Highway, and investigations cannot even begin until the flames are out. But there are already suggestions that the conflagration broke out near to where the EVs were parked.

Media speculation pointed to battery combustion as the suspected cause of the initial fire that sank Felicity Ace (IMO: 9293911), another PCTC, in February 2022.

But as the ship and its consignment of 4,000 brand new Volkswagens worth around $400m are sitting on the seabed, we will never ascertain the truth. By the way, Panama, when are you making the report available to the shipping public?

One problem could be saltwater intrusion, which in the not insignificant estimation of the US Coast Guard, could generate an extreme fire risk.

The point is, we still do not know for certain what is going on. While the spate of casualties suggests more than the workings of chance, lithium-ion batteries are innocent until proven guilty. But it is surely time to start asking searching questions.

The greatest moral imperative to do so stems from loss of life. Fremantle Highway isn’t the only fatal casualty resulting from a car carrier fire this month.

It is only three weeks since two New Jersey firefighters died while tackling a blaze on board the Grimaldi’s Grande Costa d’Avorio (IMO: 9465382) at Port Newark.

But there are financial incentives, too. AGCS calculates that fire is the most expensive cause of marine loss, accounting for 18% of the value of some 250,000 claims it analysed.

As Gallagher’s Mike Ingham pointed out, two major PCTC losses a year alone is probably enough to wipe out all global premiums on the segment, making it increasingly hard to insure. Expect pricing to go through the roof at the next renewal.

Unsuitable vessels 

One or two isolated voices — such as West of England’s loss prevention manager Simon Hodgkinson — argue that ships designed to carry vehicles powered by internal combustion engines are not suitable to carry vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries.

That is very much a minority viewpoint, and such a narrative will be hugely unpopular among shipowners who would have to foot the bill for an extensive retrofit of their PCTC fleet to reconfigure deck spacing and firefighting systems, or even scrap the mode of transport altogether.

But it is now pressing that the debate be had out, and a firm conclusion reached, sooner rather than later.

As a minimum, this must entail a review of all available evidence and a wider focus than any routine flag state investigation into an individual accident.

Electric vehicles have gone way beyond “first kid on the block with a Tesla” bragging rights and are central to the fightback against climate change.

Production volumes will increase exponentially, as will the need to shift them from production lines to markets around the globe. It is essential we get this one right.

Misdeclaration or non-declaration of cargo accounts for about 25% of all serious incidents on boxships, and some believe the true proportion is far higher.

Yantian Express in 2019 and Cosco Pacific in 2020 are the marquee cases here, and misdeclaration is suspected but not proven in multiple other major boxship losses.

Much of this headache can be laid at the door of cheating shippers, out to nickel and dime shipowners by avoiding the higher tariffs that dangerous goods inevitably attract.

This makes for relatively easy workarounds. Cargo-screening software can detect suspicious bookings and cargo details, and carriers themselves are already imposing penalties.

Unified requirements and legal penalties for misdeclared hazmat cargo should also be considered.

Finally, a word of commendation for the Dutch authorities, who go to the expense of maintaining dedicated maritime firefighting capability, which some nearby countries have axed as an unnecessary luxury.

Fremantle Highway shows why this capacity should at least be available on standby, even if it does not get used for years on end. There always will be a fire next time.

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