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Burning questions remain on EVs and ship fires: Insurers

NorthStandard experts advise the industry to learn before overacting on EV shipping risks. Interview is part of a preview of next week’s World Maritime Merchants Forum hosted by China Merchants Group

With the rise of EVs, the car carrying sector is now prepared to change its firefighting approaches after decades of status quo. But knowledge about how EVs behave in a fire on board remains insufficient

THE maritime industry should refrain from overblowing the risks of shipping electric vehicles despite serious fires in recent years, according to insurance experts from NorthStandard.

The rise of EVs has undoubtedly altered the operation’s risk profile, but the industry is still learning the true extent and how best to respond, they say.

“We should avoid sensationalism about EVs being perilous. That’s not the case,” said Colin Gillespie, global head of loss prevention at the P&I club, formed from the North and Standard Club merger.

He told Lloyd’s List in an interview that no definitive evidence shows EVs caused any past shipboard fire incidents, despite suspicions.

High-profile car carrier casualties in recent years include Höegh Xiamen (IMO: 9431848) in 2020, Felicity Ace (IMO: 9293911) in 2022 and Grande Costa D’Avorio (IMO: 9465382) and Fremantle Highway (IMO: 9667344) earlier this year.

Initially, the Dutch coastguard confirmed Fremantle Highway’s crew reported detecting the fire near EVs. But salvage firm Boskalis later said the EVs on board seemed in good condition, while the official cause remains uncertain.

Nevertheless, Gillespie acknowledged EVs have prompted rethinking fire prevention and response on car carriers due to different hazards and behaviours.

“The industry is now willing to change its firefighting approach after decades of doing things the same way,” he said, adding while it is a major step for the sector, success is not guaranteed.

“We just don’t know enough about how EVs behave in a vehicle carrier fire.”

New research from the International Union of Marine Insurance shows lithium-ion EV battery fires are not more frequent or dangerous than conventional vehicle fires. 

However, EVs do present additional risks, such as thermal runaway, where batteries suffer unstable chemical reactions, making fires hard to put out. This does not occur in conventional vehicles.

In some cases, ignition may be delayed and vapour cloud explosions can ensue, with potentially greater destructive force.

“There are some very concerning unknowns around vapour clouds, with very little research into ensuing explosions and toxicity,” Gillespie said.

He said too little was known about the triggers of vapour clouds, which made it hard to give concrete advice on preventing them.

Firefighters must react rapidly to contain spread. “Response has to be taken under 20 minutes, in the 15-minute region,” Gillespie said.

Should fires spread to more than two or three cars, fixed firefighting systems on board must be engaged swiftly. “A mindset change is required from ship operators.”

Shipping companies appear to be taking note.

Mitsui OSK Lines, for example, announced this week it will install cameras and an AI system, which alerts crew and shoreside management when detecting abnormal images of smoke on 10 new LNG-fueled car carriers delivering from 2024 to enable faster response. The company is also considering retrofitting its existing fleet.  

Gillespie’s colleague, claim director Iain Gilchrist, said crew firefighting training and drills also need enhancing or reinventing to meet new demands.

“Let’s make drills as realistic as possible, not just sounding alarms,” he said.

Operators should take proactive steps, including stricter inspections on EVs before loading them to detect the problematic cars, Gilchrist added.

Lower EV battery charge states are also recommended, on the thinking that less energy may shorten potential burning times if problems occur.

But Gillespie said insurers can hardly specify charge percentages, and operators lack control.

“It’s up to individual vessel operators to think about and liaise with the manufacturers on acceptable charge levels for new cars,” he said.

He explained lower charges may reduce the energy of a fire, but this alone would not prevent thermal runaway.

The Vehicle Carrier Safety Forum — formed by a group of ship operators and insurers — will soon launch best practice guidelines relating to the delivery of vehicles, including EVs, to vessels and their stowage as it relates to fire safety.

The International Union of Marine Insurance and ClassNK introduced similar recommendations earlier.

For underwriters, effectively pricing these added risks and related firefighting/prevention modifications remains a learning process, Gillespie said.

Currently, premiums still follow safety records: “If a vessel operator has had fires, premiums rise as insurers try to get their money back.”

Also, the vehicle carrier sector as a whole is now treated with more caution, with the number of total losses and serious incidents striking a financial blow to machinery insurers and P&I clubs in recent years.

“Naturally that takes capacity out of the market and drives further increases in premium costs,” Gillespie said.

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