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Electric car labels to improve emergency worker safety

A new SAE standard gives recommendations meant to improve emergency worker safety while working accidents involving electric or hybrid vehicles, with training on unique safety requirements, as well as labels identifying the drive train type.


The SAE (formerly Society for Automotive Engineers) released a new standard on Tuesday giving safety guidance to emergency personnel dealing with the increasing number of electric and hybrid vehicles on the road. The standard calls for a combination of labeling electric and hybrid vehicles to help emergency workers quickly identify the vehicle type, and training materials.

“As electric vehicles enter the marketplace in greater numbers, it’s an appropriate time to recognize best practices that facilitate a safe response when these vehicles are in an accident,” said SAE committee chairman Todd Mackintosh.

Like many things, electricity can kill someone if administered in the correct way. That factoid is in the conventional wisdom and is causing some to think emergency workers are risking their lives when working on crashed electric vehicles. Emergency workers are already risking their lives just by dint of working in the middle of the road, not to mention the risk of dealing with explosive liquids like gasoline. Electricity, as the new technology on the block, may be getting a reception similar to anything new, that is a period of distrust and misunderstanding, by some, of the real dangers.

The recommendations in the new standard (“J2990-Hybrid and EV First and Second Responder Recommended Practice”) include

Vehicle badging: Hybrid or electric cars would carry a label at a consistent location and size announcing the vehicle contains a high voltage power train, and the power train type. That way a first responder can quickly know how to deal with specific vehicles involved in accidents, just as trucks containing hazardous materials are marked with information for first responders.

Quick reference guide: “Think of this as a cheat sheet for first-responders,” said Mackintosh. “This will help emergency personnel identify the location of high -voltage components, high-strength steel, and high voltage and supplemental restraint system disabling procedures to ensure the safest response methods for both themselves and vehicle occupants.”

Common methods for disconnecting power: Emergency works would have standard methods for disabling the high voltage circuits, under the theory that by disconnecting the battery pack it will be safer to work on the car. Indeed, in general disconnecting the battery pack will limit where the high voltage is located.

Tow truck operator safety recommendations: “We want to see OEMs create a set of steps to follow so second-responders (tow truck operators) use safe practices. The second responder community should be made aware of proper procedures when towing, handling and/or storing a damaged or inoperable electric vehicle,” Mackintosh said.

On the one hand these measures appear to be a sane approach to plausible dangers from electric or hybrid vehicles. Emergency workers can always use more information about safely dealing with all the kinds of vehicles in operation. Both first and second responders routinely receive safety training already. It will simplify emergency workers life to have common methods to disconnect and neutralize battery packs. Most electric vehicle battery packs are rated for 3-400 volts, which is a lethal voltage.

On the other hand, one can make an over-the-top and probably inappropriate comparison to the gold star the Nazi's forced Jews to wear. Even if one doesn't want to reach that far, this still raises a question: Why are electric and hybrid cars being singled out for special labeling? Why not create a standard label for all vehicle types describing the drive train components? Gasoline, diesel, and natural gas are all dangerous if mistreated, just as battery packs can be dangerous if mistreated.

Some automakers are going to great lengths to make their hybrid or electric vehicles look just like any other vehicle. Will the labeling requirement negate that automaker goal? Or will the labeling be similar in size to existing labels like the "Hybrid" or "Electric" or "5.0L" (as appropriate) labels automakers already put on the cars? According to a USA Today report issued on Tuesday, the labeling must be visible from 50 feet away, and that existing labels such as Toyota's "Hybrid Synergy Drive" logo might suffice.

The history of electric and gasoline cars in crashes clearly demonstrate that gasoline powered vehicles are more dangerous after accidents than electric. There are 250,000 car fires per year, so common they never get reported in the news, with a number fatalities from these fires every year. The history of electric car accidents have resulted in zero fires or explosions, for example a severe crash last May in which a Chevy Volt was destroyed by a Toyota Camry resulted in the Camry catching fire, while the Volt did not. The safety training and labeling recommended by the standard is looking to address a somewhat different problem than the risk of explosion. Instead it is addressing the potential for electrocution.

Source: SAE, USA Today