Even if an investigator can go all the way back to the incident that caused a car fire, there is rarely a single cause. The most likely explanation is a combination of human mistake, mechanical problems, and chemical causes. And these may have collaborated to cause a fire.
If a car catches fire, any number of other factors can (and will) worsen the situation. Understanding these variables could help you avoid a potentially harmful situation.
The most important thing to understand is that after a car has caught fire, the reason is essentially irrelevant. Don’t worry about if the engine was overheated or whether you spilled fluid (although that information might be useful later, for insurance purposes or to help an auto manufacturer fix a potential flaw). If your car is on fire, exit the vehicle immediately and get as far away from it as possible.
A tiny car fire will not remain small for long, and any combination of the primary causes (or consequences) discussed in this article will rapidly exacerbate the issue.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), one out of every eight reported fires involves a car, so it’s important to know how to mitigate some of the danger in your own vehicle.
10: Design Flaws
Because there is no on/off switch for igniting a car fire, a design error in a vehicle is unlikely to start a fire on its own. The United States Fire Administration estimates that fewer than 1 percent of automobile fires are caused by design defects. Typically, manufacturers catch these occurrences before they become prevalent. They issue recalls to remove unsafe vehicles from the road and remedy the defects.
Not all design defects result in automobile fires, but any number of problems can greatly increase the likelihood of fires. Whilst certain current occurrences will be used as examples on the following pages, it is important to note that since 2012, the majority of major automakers have recalled almost 10 million gasoline- and electric-powered vehicles due to a fire hazard.
9: Poor Maintenance
Human error is unlikely to be the cause of a fire in your vehicle; after all, laziness is not the same as striking a match and throwing it into the gas tank. But, if you neglect maintenance, your vehicle may be more hazardous in general, and the higher possibility of a car fire is only one of the hazards you assume. According to the United States Fire Administration, mechanical failure is the major cause of automobile fires.
Neglecting or forgetting to properly maintain your vehicle can indirectly cause a fire. Broken parts, leaking seals, and defective wiring all make your vehicle far more conducive to the conditions that cause fires if they are not repaired. This is especially true for antique and older vehicles.
A motor with a faulty gasket is more likely to leak dangerous and combustible fluids. Around twenty percent of automobile fires are caused by electrical failure or malfunction. Thus, simply lift the hood periodically and inspect for leaks and frayed wiring.
8: Car Crashes
Depending on the collision location, a car accident may result in a car fire. The crumple zones of the majority of vehicles are well-designed, so the body and frame absorb the force of an impact and protect interior, hazardous areas such as the engine, battery, and gas tank. Nonetheless, a blow of sufficient force is likely to create fluid leaks and spilling, along with heat and smoke. As is common knowledge, high temperatures and fluid spills provide ideal circumstances for a fire.
Since it is difficult for occupants of a crashed vehicle to assess the extent of the damage while still inside, the possibility of a fire may not be immediately apparent. It is always advisable to leave a damaged vehicle as quickly as possible. Consider yourself fortunate if you are not confined inside a smashed vehicle; even if it catches fire, you are at a safe distance.
The criminal act of starting a fire is known as arson. Why would someone intentionally set fire to a car? Usually, it’s revenge. It could also be an attempt to conceal evidence of another crime. Sometimes it’s curiosity or simple vandalism, and sometimes it’s insurance fraud. There are likely a number of further explanations, but that is better left to the investigators.
It is relatively simple to put an automobile on fire. Investigators of arson frequently search for evidence of tampering with the fuel system or an electrical short. We are in no way advocating this, but we are stating that an arsonist is another possible cause of your car’s fire.
6: Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Batteries
In the fall of 2013, a Tesla Model S caught fire shortly after receiving the unofficial label of “the safest automobile ever” from the media and Tesla Motors. Obviously, that’s never a good sign, but for Tesla it was particularly unfortunate. Several times, the corporation claimed that its fully electric Model S was virtually immune to the battery-related issues that have afflicted hybrid cars and electric vehicles in the past. However, a Model S driving at high speeds collided with a piece of debris that punctured the battery, and the battery behaved like any other battery would: it caught fire. Numerous additional Teslas have caught fire since the original one in 2013, albeit such incidents are uncommon.
Chevrolet recalled around 110,000 Volt EVs from model years 2017 to 2022 due to possible battery fire hazards. The batteries were found to include hardware and software flaws. An estimated one-third of electric vehicle fires occur while the vehicle is parked and unplugged.
Nonetheless, hybrid automobiles appear to be the most prone to catch fire, followed by gasoline vehicles. Electric-powered vehicles are a distant third. Obviously, since there are more gasoline-powered vehicles on the road, they are also responsible for the vast majority of fires.
5: Overheating Catalytic Converters
The fire risk posed by overheating catalytic converters is commonly overlooked, but it should not be. This is why: It runs the entire length of the car and is one of the hottest components. The exhaust system is meant.
Typically, catalytic converters overheat because they are burning off more exhaust pollutants than they are designed to handle. In other words, if the car’s engine isn’t running efficiently (due to old spark plugs or a number of other bad situations), it doesn’t burn the gasoline efficiently, and a great deal of additional material is expelled through the exhaust system. The cat must therefore work harder to complete its duties, making it even heated than usual.
Normal working temperatures for a catalytic converter range from roughly 800 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (648.9 to 871.1 degrees Celsius). An overworked (or clogged) catalytic converter can easily reach 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093.3 degrees Celsius). This not only causes long-term damage to the cat, but also to the car’s surrounding components and the surroundings, such as tall grasses. The automobile is meant to endure the average temperature of a cat, but it cannot withstand temperatures several hundred degrees higher. At such high temperatures, the catalytic converter will not catch fire, but it might theoretically ignite everything nearby, including other automotive components.
4: Overheating Engines
An engine that overheats and causes a car fire is an excellent illustration of how one problem can escalate to another. Most likely, a car’s engine will not overheat sufficiently to spontaneously catch fire. Yet, an overheated engine can cause its fluids, such as oil and coolant, to reach high temperatures and begin to leak from their assigned zones of circulation. They drop, sprinkle, and gush throughout the engine compartment and onto the exhaust system, landing on other hot components where they can ignite and spread. Typically, vehicles will pull over before the situation becomes so dire.
In rare cases, such as the recall of approximately 90,000 Ford vehicles equipped with a specific EcoBoost powertrain in late 2012, an engine that overheats is sometimes the result of a design flaw that is correctable with a software update — modifying the car’s computer to help maintain engine temperatures within a safer (lower temperature) range. Nonetheless, an overheating engine typically requires mechanical attention.
3: Spilled Fluids
Gasoline or diesel fuel, engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and even engine coolant are among the flammable and extremely hazardous fluids found in the common car or truck. All of these fluids circulate when the engine is running, and they can all catch fire if their lines, hoses, or reservoirs are damaged. Even while one of the car’s essential liquids is unlikely to begin leaking without warning — typically, something else must go wrong first — these fluids are all combustible.
In conjunction with another aggravating circumstance, such as a car accident or a malfunctioning component, the result could be a fire. Despite the fact that such a fire is most likely to start in the engine compartment, where these hazardous substances are concentrated, keep in mind that some of them, such as fuel and brake fluid, can travel the entire length of the vehicle.
2: Electrical System Failures
Electrical system failures are the second most prevalent cause of car fires, hence they occupy the second slot on the list. Batteries for automobiles are problematic, and not just the hybrid and all-electric battery packs we’ve already explored. Standard lead-acid battery charging cycles in a common automobile can allow explosive hydrogen gas to accumulate in the engine compartment, and the battery’s electrical current (combined with faulty or loose wiring) can produce sparks that can quickly ignite a fluid trickle or leaking vapors.
The electrical system’s dangers are not limited to the area beneath the hood. Electrical wiring flows down channels, through doors, beneath the carpet, and under powered and heated seats, to mention a few locations where a frayed wire could cause havoc if left undiscovered.
1: Fuel System Leaks
Leaks in the gasoline system are the leading cause of vehicle fires, thus they top our list. A gasoline system leak is quite risky. We’ve already shown that many automobile fluids are acidic, toxic, and flammable, but gasoline is among the most flammable.
In contact with a spark, gasoline at a temperature of at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7.2 degrees Celsius) can ignite rapidly. That occurs frequently and on purpose in a moving car, although it is confined by the engine. And gasoline at 495 degrees Fahrenheit (257.2 degrees Celsius) will spontaneously ignite.
It’s simple to see how fuel spilling onto hot metal and plastic parts may ignite a rapid-spreading fire, let alone a spark from a discarded cigarette or other source.
The most effective strategy to lessen the likelihood of a fuel system fire is to ensure that the vehicle is well-maintained and to avoid the conditions we’ve already outlined. And if you ever smell gas in or near your vehicle, immediately locate and repair the leak.