I was on my way to work one morning when my car caught fire. Terrified, I bolted out of the vehicle and called the fire department and my boss to tell him what happened.
It was the first time I’d ever seen a car on fire outside the movies. What caused the car to burn? Why didn’t the car explode like they do in movies?
Do Cars Explode When Catching Fire?
The liquid fuel is not pressurized nor superheated to the point of explosion. Gas tanks today are made of plastic. These melt and allow the fuel to spill out.
They aren’t pressurized; in fact, they allow venting. Only if a bomb were attached to the tank would it blow.
Anatomy Of A Car
To understand how a car could catch fire, it’s necessary to understand how the fuel, a spark, and heat could cause the fire. You need to know how your car works.
The Fuel System
From the gas tank, the fuel is pumped through the lines to the fuel injectors or carburetor. The fuel pump is pressurized in order to get the fuel to the engine. The fuel then passes through filters to clean it of any dirt or dust it could have picked up. Now the fuel goes to the fuel injectors or carburetor on an older car. These provide the engine with the proper fuel and air combination.
Engine Ignition System
I admit I don’t understand a car’s inner workings like some men do, but I can tell you the basics. When you turn the key in your car, you’re activating the ignition system. The goal is to transfer a high voltage current from your battery to each spark plug.
It does this by means of two coils, leads, a distributor, a camshaft, and spark plugs. This ignites the fuel/air combination in the combustion chambers in the engine.
The Engine Starting System
Lots of people think the engine ignition and starting system is the same thing. It’s not. The ignition isn’t enough to get the engine to turn over. It needs a kick start.
When you turn the key in the ignition of your car, a current goes to the starter and touches the starter solenoid. This powers a starter motor. While this is going on, a starter gear moves to combine with a flywheel attached to the crankshaft. The motor turns over, thus turning over the engine. This is the origin of the term “crank it up.”
The Electrical System
Your car’s electrical system consists of the battery, the starter, and the alternator. You’ve seen how the battery and starter work. The alternator keeps powering the battery, so it can provide juice to the rest of the engine. You must keep on top of maintaining these in order for the car to run smoothly.
Now you have fuel making its way to the engine, the ignition to fire the spark plugs, the starter to turn over the engine, and the electrical system to keep everything going. What could cause a spark that would begin a fire?
What Could Cause A Car Fire To Begin?
There are multiple reasons cars catch fire, but these are the top ten:
- Leaks. A car uses many types of fluids like oil, transmission fluid, steering fluid, brake fluid, and gas, to name a few. These are combustible, so the smallest spark could set off a fire
- Spills. These usually happen in car crashes. A road full of flammable fluids is wide open to sparks that cause fires
- Arson. Some people intent on causing trouble saw a line in half, causing fluid to leak, or they stick a flaming object in the gas tank. Either way, a car fire is the result
- Car crashes. Fires generally don’t result from a car crash, but they do when a larger vehicle runs all up on a smaller one. This adds a superheated vehicle to the possibly leaking mix, which causes a fire
- Engines overheating. While this won’t cause a fire of itself, fluids could become superheated and cause a fire.
- Electrical system. Wires run throughout a car, including beneath the seats and in the door. Faulty wiring causes fires.
- Catalytic converters overheating. The exhaust system is supremely hot. A catalytic converter that’s too hot damages what’s around it and causes a fire.
- No or poor maintenance. Leaking seals, weak wiring, or parts that need repair cause fires.
- Flaws in design. While flaws don’t cause fires of themselves, they set the stage for some parts to cause a fire.
- Electric car batteries. When they first came out, electric car batteries overheated and caused fires. Today’s electric cars are made to withstand any spark that could cause a fire.
Did The First Cars Catch Fire?
This is unlikely since the first cars made from the late 1700s into the 1800s ran on steam. A small amount of fuel heated a boiler with water. Steam resulted. The steam pushed the pistons to turn a crankshaft, thus making the engine run. The first steam vehicles were fire trucks and cars. It’s hard to see steam causing a fire.
By the early 1900s, gasoline engines were a thing and continue to this day. The earliest gasoline engines worked like the engine we discussed above. It was cheaper to use, and people didn’t have long distances to drive, so keeping gas in the car was no big thing.
There is little to no research on the earliest cars catching fire. However, they didn’t have much in the way of wiring or electrical to worry about, so the only way they could catch fire is if an accident occurred or if arson was involved.
Signs Of A Potential Car Fire
- No one expects a car fire, but almost no one recognizes the signs, either:
- Temperature. Every driver has watched as the oil light has come on or the check engine light has lit up. Drivers watch the water symbol with equal dismay. Get that car to a mechanic pronto before a fire starts
- Leaks. If a puddle appears beneath your car when parked, then get the car to a mechanic pronto. All it takes is one spark to start a fire
- Electrical. Burned wiring shows up in the failure of some parts of the car to work. Blown fuses mean that some parts of the car should be checked out by a mechanic before trouble starts that could end in a car fire
Car Fires By The Numbers
Between 1980 and 1988, there were between 435,000 and 459,000 highway vehicle fires in the US. In 1989, those numbers began to dwindle to 415,000 and fewer. By 2019, the number was down to 189,500 car fires. Cars over the years have taken advantage of the available technologies of the times to deliver safer cars.
What About Those Technologies?
Human error accounts for many car crashes and car fires. Today’s technologies help drivers avoid these by using, if not artificial intelligence, then by using predictive technologies.
Blind spots, driving too close to the edge of the road, skids, and much more are now controlled by adaptive technologies. Drivers almost don’t have to do anything but steer.
Faulty wiring, poor maintenance, and car crashes are still the main causes of car fires. Today’s technologies, however, are heavy on computerization.
New cars sense when car parts are wearing out, broken, or otherwise in need of attention. They know when the battery or alternator is low on juice. Drivers then understand they must take the car to a mechanic for repair and/or maintenance to avoid a car fire.
Which Cars Catch Fire The Most?
By now, you’re probably wondering if your wheels are safe from a car fire. I once drove a Ford Pinto. This car had the highest occurrence of fires, but I lucked out. I never had one.
To date, the five cars voted most likely to catch fire are the BMW 1.3 and 5 models produced between 2006 and 2011, Mercedes sedans and SUVs produced from 2015 to 2017 in the C, E, CLA, GLA, and GLC SUVs, Kia Sorento, Optima, and Soul made between 2010 and 2015, the 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, and the Nissan Murano, Maxima, Infiniti QX60, and Pathfinder made from 2016 to 2018. Avoid these, and you should be good to go.
Car Fires In The Future
Unfortunately, trending now is electric car battery fires. Manufacturers are working to fix the problem. In two instances, road debris struck the battery casing and caused a fire.
Manufacturers are working to thicken the casing with three layers of protection to avoid future car fires. Technology will play a large part in the future of cars and the causes of car fires. Human error will have to work harder to overcome the technological protection of their cars.