Tech Talk

New dangers for truckies at electric vehicle accidents

Often first on the scene of a crash, truckies now need to know these crucial new factors with the onset of electric power.

Too often truckies are the first on the scene of a traffic disaster, particularly in rural or regional areas and especially when it’s a single vehicle prang that has left a car or truck mangled and dismembered.

The most tragic are the ones where it’s clear there’s someone trapped, and the smell of leaking fuel hits your nostrils just before a spark ignites a conflagration that leaves little hope for the occupant.

Now the escalating level of electric cars and trucks on our roads, plus the broadening charge network means one of our fellow truckies is soon going to come across an electric vehicle that has met its maker and feel an urgent need to steam in and do a rescue.

Emergency services are the only ones fully prepared to do that, and across the country they sing the same song, no matter what kind of fuel powers the wreck – “Call 000 (Triple Zero) and describe the scene with as much information as possible, including the make and model of the vehicle(s) involved.”

On rare occasions other drivers and members of the public have pulled people from accident scenes and saved their lives by doing so. But with the onset of electric power, there are some crucial facts to be aware of.

Firstly, even with expert training, first responders still cop the brunt of injuries and worse in helping others. From 2003 to March 2020, 47 Australian first responder professionals have lost their lives in work related incidents.

Twenty-one of these were Fire and Emergency (FES) workers. Forty per cent of those fatalities involved motor vehicle accidents. The SafeWork Australia graphic illustrates how people we depend on in times of greatest need regularly put their lives on the line.

Safe handling of a damaged petrol, diesel or gas fuelled vehicle is well established, but the growing pool of electric vehicles means FES personnel need extensive specialist guidelines when attending an accident involving one of these products.

With more electric vehicles on the road now, it’s important for truckies to be aware of the inherent dangers at a crash.

Here’s why. In 2017 an electric vehicle crashed into a Californian house, sparking a blaze that set fire to the building. Fire and Emergency (FES) doused the house, but the car wouldn’t stop burning, despite 90,000 litres of water.

Eventually it was extinguished, but when the wreck was loaded on to a tray top, it re-ignited, and needed copious amounts of water to get back under control. It again ignited when in the storage yard. Seven hours after the impact, it was under control.

The National Transportation Safety Board in the US investigated vehicle battery fire risks recently and identified several non-crash fires.

“Three of the batteries reignited after the fires were extinguished,” it stated. “Thermal runaway and multiple battery reignitions . . . are safety risks in high-voltage lithium-ion battery fires.”

The architecture surrounding battery packs in the latest EVs is highly specialised and designed to preserve the integrity of the battery pack in all but the most serious accidents.

Even in trucks where there is more room and ease of access, in the event of a high-severity prang where vehicle components are strewn across road surfaces and surrounds, the danger to FES workers and police from chemical fire and stranded high-voltage energy is extreme.

Every EV maker publishes clear and comprehensive instructions for isolating high-voltage systems on its vehicles. Volvo and Fuso emergency data sheets identify key active disconnection systems to discharge the HV systems capacitance, but warn that thermal runaway of the lithium-ion battery pack is always a danger to everyone on the ground.

The Volvo has a warning light and alarm in the instrument cluster if it detects a battery fire developing.

However, high-voltage systems can still pack a healthy punch of residual energy. Even if the battery is not damaged, it still represents a danger and has to be handled with extreme care – whether the HV battery has a low or complete charge, if you touch a live component you’re just as dead.

An emergency response data sheet for an electric Volvo truck.

ANCAP now publishes an app called ANCAP RESCUE. All manufacturers upload PDFs with detailed data on safe entry points, warnings for gas cylinders, fuel tanks, high-voltage cabling and batteries. FES personnel can access the data at the depot, in transit or on site so that potential casualties can be extricated as quickly as is safely possible.

One FES boss told us that his teams, “draw on a range of guidance for responding to emergency incidents involving vehicles that use an alternative source of fuel, including electric, hydrogen fuel cell, and hybrids.”

He noted that the primary task for first responders involving these vehicles is to quickly identify the make and model. “That knowledge is critical in locating hazards, such as high-voltage batteries and airbags, as this can differ significantly from vehicle to vehicle,” he said.

Graphics detail the pathways of HV cables, including the cabling of some latest model cars which are moving to 48-volt systems to power the ever-growing burden of electrical components and controls. High pressure gas canisters in the roof rails of vehicles with side-curtain airbags are also identified.

It’s never been as simple as grabbing the grinder and peeling the panels off for access to a trapped driver or passenger, but with EVs the dangers expand, as one unfortunate responder in Europe discovered when his grinder struck a HV line and kicked back, shattering his jaw.

The dangers will expand further when medium and heavy-duty electric trucks increase their market presence, bringing larger, high voltage and high-density lithium-ion battery packs. Add heavy rain and the danger multiplies.

For the rest of us, if you come across an accident, your first action is the same no matter what kind of fuel is on board.

Call 000 (Triple Zero) and give as much information as possible. First responders can then arrive fully equipped and prepared. Whether it’s a ruptured fuel tank or a fractured battery pack, both need specialist handling.

BTW – just in case, download the ANCAP RESCUE app. It’s free, and it might save your life.

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