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New rules needed for handling electric cars on board ships

05 March 2024

There hasn't been a single documented case of a fire starting in an electric car on a ship, but if an electric car battery catches fire, the fire can be difficult to extinguish. According to a new report from Lighthouse, new standardized guidelines and regulations are therefore needed for handling electric cars on board. The current handling procedures can have disastrous consequences.

In connection with large ship fires, electric cars have been pointed out in the media several times as the cause. Last summer, for example, there were numerous reports about the cargo ship Fremantle Highway catching fire off the coast of the Netherlands with 500 electric cars on board. The initial reports speculated that the fire probably started among them. However, it soon became apparent that all the electric cars had survived the fire, which must have started somewhere else.

"We actually haven't found a single documented case of a fire on board starting in an electric car. This was surprising because our starting point was that electric cars pose a significant danger. All the reports about electric cars catching fire on board seem to stem from the human psychology of fearing the unfamiliar," says Claes Martinsson, a professor of law at the University of Gothenburg and one of the researchers behind the preliminary study "Regulatory Aspects of Electric Vehicles and Fire in Maritime RoRo/RoPax Transports."

Studies on land have shown that electric cars catch fire much less frequently than fossil fuel-powered cars. But that doesn't mean they are safe on board a ship.

"If they do catch fire, fires in electric cars have certain characteristics. For example, it's not enough to quickly remove all oxygen to extinguish the fire because as soon as new oxygen is added, the process continues. So, how is such a fire best extinguished? If you fill with water, you need so much that the ship risks capsizing."

The pre-study has indeed identified risks and effects, but as both the title of the study and Claes Martinsson's titles reveal (Martinsson also holds the professorship in maritime and transport law), it primarily deals with legal matters. Standardized rules and guidelines are needed for handling electric cars on board.

"Today, there are different guidelines from different organizations and maritime actors, some overestimating the risks while others underestimate them. As a lawyer, when I look at this, I see that these private regulations contain roughly the same precautions, but they are described in different ways and appear as different standards with deviations, which is foolish and unnecessary."

The pre-study lays the foundation for the work that regulators now need to do. Both private regulators and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) can therefore benefit from the overview provided by the preliminary study. It can also serve as the basis for further research.

"This includes, for example, what type of firefighting method should be used. Most of today's guidelines advocate for water-based firefighting. Should we maybe discourage that? The placement of electric cars is another important issue. They should be placed separately with a considerable distance between the cars, which may not be very popular among car-carrying shipping companies. Monitoring and alarm systems are another important issue, as well as ensuring that electric cars do not collide with anything when they are loaded on board."

The pre-study Regulatory aspects of Electric Vehicles and Fire in Maritime RoRo/RoPax Transports has been authored by:
Monica Lundh, Division of Maritime Studies, Department of Mechanics and Maritime Sciences, at Chalmers University of Technology
Lars-Göran Malmberg, Ocean Law Group, Department of Law, School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg
Claes Martinson, Ocean Law Group, Department of Law, School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg
Assistant: Natasha Mattsson Larsson, Department of Law, School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg

In cooperation with
Statens haverikommission
Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap (MSB)
Transportstyrelsen


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