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By Brent Fuller for the Cay Compass, October 11, 2012
Local paramedics, firefighters and police met with electric car company representatives this week to discuss concerns about electric vehicle safety.
Cayman Islands Emergency Medical Services Director Stephen Duval said Tuesday that there were a lot of “myths and unknowns” about electric vehicles that had worried some emergency responders who will have to deal with any accidents involving those cars. However, he told the group that the concerns were really no different that those associated with a gas-powered vehicle.
“It’s just a standard vehicle chassis,” Mr. Duval said.
Joining about 30 emergency responders in the government administration building Tuesday, were representatives of Hazard Management Cayman Islands, as well as representatives of Smith Electric Vehicles and Wheego Electric Cars.
Wheego Life vehicles are one of the models being sold by Cayman Automotive since the government legalised electric vehicles for use on Cayman Islands roads last month.
Wheego Technical Support Manager Brian Dean told the assembled group that there were essentially three ways to shut off the lithium ion battery that powers the economy-sized electric vehicle in case of an accident.
The easiest way is to simply turn off the ignition switch, Mr. Dean said, but he admitted that’s not always an option. In the case of a serious, high speed collision, the battery power should just switch off anyway.
“On the left-hand side [of the car under the hood] … there’s an inertia switch,” Mr. Dean said. “It’s very similar to a fuelled car with gasoline, if this car is in a collision that has an impact that’s of great enough significance in a gasoline car to trigger a shut-down of the fuel system, as it would in a car, shut down the battery system.” There’s also a service disconnect switch located at the front of the vehicle.
Concern among emergency services appears to be that the lithium ion battery pack contained in the Wheego is quite large, stretching almost the full length of the vehicle under the hood, with about five inches of space on either side. There’s also a standard 12-volt battery under the hood, as there would be in a gas-powered vehicle, to run things such as the headlights, windshield wipers and radio.
In crash tests done at 30 miles-per-hour, Mr. Dean said the Wheego’s lithium battery pack sustained no rupture in its protective casing.
However, in situations where the pack has been ruptured and there is a safety concern, he advised emergency responders to handle it like they would any other battery or power cell.
“If you believe there’s a breach of the case, you’d want an insulated glove and you’re wanting to not put an item such as a screwdriver or some other piece of metal over those two posts to cause a direct short on the battery,” Mr. Dean said. “That’s not different than any other car battery.
There were also some questions regarding the effects of water on the electric vehicle’s operation, as Cayman is generally a humid and rainy environment for at least half the year.
“The wettest environment we’ve had cars in right now is Seattle and we’ve had cars there for two or three years,” Mr. Dean said.
There have been problems with vehicle encoders going out because of water getting into them, but Mr. Dean said they haven’t actually had any motors get “messed up” there.
The Wheego owner’s manual states that the vehicle should not be driven into more than 12 to 14 inches of standing water. Emergency crews wondered how that might work out in Cayman, where roads often flood during heavy rains.
“The battery pack is sealed … but I know sometimes in Cayman, [standing] water can go from 12 inches to 4 feet because of the way people drive,” said John Felder of Cayman Automotive. “We will be monitoring that.”