In the wake of the Fremantle Highway car carrier fire and the leaks from various media that an electric car has been linked to the fire of the ship, insurers now issue guidelines in response to the growing concerns about the fires breaking out on car carriers and roros and the assertion that many of these fires are attributable to electric vehicles.

The fire was initially suspected to have been triggered by a burning EV, but officially, the cause is still unknown.

Whatever the cause of the Fremantle Highway blaze, the risk of EV fires aboard ships is one that both the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) are investigating.

The guidelines have been issued by the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) which has researched these claims and published recommendations on the safe carriage of electric vehicles (EVs).

Electric vehicle fires are ‘not more frequent or dangerous’ than conventional car blazes, IUMI argues.

Lars Lange, IUMI Secretary General, said that “Our paper draws on a body of scientific research which demonstrates that fires in battery EVs are not more dangerous than fires in conventional vehicles, nor are they more frequent.”

Although statistics continue to be gathered, they currently estimate that, in general, there are fewer fires from EVs compared with fires from conventional vehicles when driven over the same distance, argues the International Union of Marine Insurance.

Research also proves that there is only a minor difference between total energy released during an EV fire and one that is related to an internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV), in accordance with IUMI. Once established, vehicle fires are around 80% fuelled by the car body and interior parts rather than the propulsion system.

However, the potential for thermal runaway -when the battery suffers an unstable chemical reaction -exists for EVs whereas it is not a consideration for ICEVs.

Thermal runaway makes fires hard to extinguish, hence mitigation measures such as boundary cooling must be employed rapidly. Moreover, the risk of re-ignition is higher for an extended period of time.

In the paper, IUMI makes important distinctions between roros and pure car and truck carriers (PCTCs) noting that many roros will stow cars on open decks where air flow makes fire-fighting more challenging.

Ropax vessels, where passengers are also carried, present additional issues such as passengers wanting to charge onboard and the possibility of cars being loaded that are older and potentially less safe.

Conversely, PCTCs tend to carry vehicles tightly packed leaving little room for emergency access and facilitating the rapid spread of a fire.

Considering this, IUMI concludes that early fire detection and confirmation is critically important to reduce the time between detection and firefighting response to a minimum. Options, in addition to the conventional systems, could include thermal imaging cameras and AI powered systems.

IUMI added that drencher systems are effective for fire-fighting onboard roro and ropax vessels both for EV and ICEV fires and should be installed alongside video monitoring systems.

CO2 extinguishing systems, if applied quickly, are successful in fighting PCTC fires and their capacity should be doubled. High-expansion foam fire extinguishing systems have also proved to be effective to prevent heat transfer from one vehicle to another.

Early detection, confirmation and a short response time are crucial to fight a fire successfully. On board PCTCs, fixed systems should always be applied before manual fire-fighting is employed, IUMI claimed.

“A clear policy is required on which cargo is accepted or rejected. Vehicles should be screened with used vehicles being checked carefully for hidden damage,” says the union of marine insurers adding that “charging onboard ropax vessels should be permitted subject to relevant risk assessments and control measures. Safety mechanisms built into EVs are usually activated during charging.”

The IMO’s sub-committee on ship systems and equipment (SSE) will start work on the “evaluation of adequacy of fire protection, detection and extinction arrangements in vehicle, special category and ro-ro spaces in order to reduce the fire risk of ships carrying new energy vehicles” beginning in March 2024.