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Recent fires on board ships carrying electric cars have prompted a rush to boost the protection of vessels, with a regulatory official warning that growing exports of battery-powered vehicles pose a significant safety risk.
Heike Deggim, head of safety at the UN’s International Maritime Organization, said member states would draw up new rules next spring for shipping groups that transport vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries.
Industry participants said shipowners were also looking to redesign car carriers, upgrade fire prevention measures, and mitigate the threat to lives and global trade posed by the batteries, whose flames can be harder to keep extinguished than those caused by conventional vehicles.
Deggim said shipping faced a “huge problem” as more goods containing lithium-ion batteries were transported by sea, with electric models making up about 14 per cent of car sales in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency.
“Lithium batteries have been recognized as potentially hazardous when it comes to fire risk,” she told the Financial Times. “So we need to ensure that the regulations take into account those risks.”
Her comments follow recent fires on board electric-car carriers. In July, one crew member died following a blaze off the Dutch coast on a ship reportedly carrying thousands of cars, including several electric vehicles. An investigation into the cause of the fire has begun, according to the Dutch coastguard.
On all types of ships, the number of fires reported last year increased 17 per cent to 209, the highest level for a decade, according to a report published in May by Allianz. The insurer warned that hazardous cargoes were increasingly being transported on larger vessels, deepening potential financial losses and delays to trade.
A fire possibly started by electric vehicles on board another ship in the Atlantic Ocean last year led to the loss of $155mn worth of Volkswagen vehicles, according to risk assessment group Russell. Prices for insuring EVs as cargo, whether on sea or land, are one-and-a-half-times as expensive as for combustion engines, according to one insurance market participant.
Such incidents have prompted warnings that many carriers are not fully equipped to handle electric vehicles. The International Union of Marine Insurance said in September that although fires caused by these vehicles were not more common or intense than those caused by traditional cars, new firefighting techniques were needed to tackle “thermal runaway,” when overcharged batteries could rapidly overheat and reignite even after being extinguished.
“Firefighting [is] very difficult” on modern car carriers, said Richard Gunn, a casualty lawyer at law firm Reed Smith, who added that ships tended to be built with several decks that were built as low as possible to maximize the amount of vehicles that could be carried on board.
Michael Barrass, marine risk management consultant at insurer RSA, said the IMO’s existing safety regulations were “not really built to deal with EVs” and added: “The industry is moving forward but probably not at the pace that we want.”
Deggim said she expected member states to develop “special requirements” for ships carrying electric cars at a subcommittee meeting in March, after a number of them raised concerns with the IMO. Any new standards would then need to be approved by the organization’s safety committee.
Barrass said businesses could already install “thermal imaging cameras” and smoke detectors for toxic gases released by lithium-ion battery fires. He added that some in the industry discussing the development of crew evacuation routes and accommodation that were better protected from car decks. One company was looking to commission a ship with “fully contained” storage for cars, Gunn added.
Shipowners could face growing pressure from clients to make these kinds of upgrades.
“The underlying technology is safe, provided that you handle it properly and you store it properly,” said Jim Rowan, chief executive of Volvo Cars, which is aiming to sell only electric cars by 2030.
“The shipping industry needs to understand the cargo that they are transporting and they need to put in the relevant requirements to make sure that they do that safely and responsibly,” he said.