This Week in EVs: Disaster Edition

It’s been a few weeks since my last TWiEVs post, but there hasn’t been much to cover. No matter, the biggest news in the world of automotive electric propulsion has really been flooding in this week (pun intended). Once again I’ve gathered some electric vehicle and battery news from around the net for SU readers to gain some insight into Saab’s new challenges.

Image from Jalopnik

Battery safety has been called into question this week after several Fisker Karmas and Toyota Prii (priuses?) spontaneously combusted after burning at port after being inundated by the storm surge of Superstorm Sandy. That same storm made getting gas an extreme headache for anyone with a car in downstate New York and northern New Jersey as many readers here can attest, we’ll look into how having more EVs might change that.

And speaking of EVs in North America, there’s some new studies out that show the US will actually lead plug-in sales in the next few years and that China will surprisingly not meet anticipated targets. Someone might want to tell those guys at NEVS they might want to rethink their Chinacentric model?

Saltwater + Batteries = Bad Idea

In an event that took most of the tristate area in the Northeast US by storm and is continuing to cause untold pain, a fascinating experiment happened when a 13′ storm surge inundated the power of Newark. Yes, it’s the same port that once held hundreds of Saabs but fortunately a few days before Sandy flooded NJ, had only four left (I’m not sure if they made it out before, if anyone does feel free to chime in on comments below). As many of you know, Fisker has their Karmas built in Finland at Valmet, the same factory where 9-3 Convertibles were manufactured for GM only a few years ago, then shipped to the Port of Newark for delivery to US customers. Sixteen were parked there when the surge hit, in addition to a few Toyota Prius plug-ins (one that smoldered, the other outright combusted). The leading theory at the moment was posted at the New York Times, which made the connection between the much higher conductivity of salt water which acts as a connection between the negative and positive diodes of the battery and caused a chemical cascading reaction that led to the fires. While this all sounds scary on the surface and initially causes great concern over battery safety, when you back up and think of all the scenarios that this could possibly happen, it’s pretty much limited to saltwater flooding. Lesson: if you live on the coast of the ocean and there’s any chance of a flood, move your car to higher ground because even if it’s not electric, if it floods it’s going to be a mess regardless.

Disasterproofing your commute

One of the leaders of the EV movement who runs the blog learned his lesson after his power was out for an extended period of time after the last hurricane that struck the Northeast plus a freak snowstorm that downed deciduous trees. He purchased a Generac natural gas electric generator with enough kW output to power his home and charge his two EVs. While there is still gas rationing in New Jersey today, Lyle has seen absolutely no disruption to his daily routine, despite the grid power being out at his home. This is something to think about for those SU readers who like to only see the downside to using a plug to power your car. I too have had a Generac natural gas generator since 2006 and have to say it’s one of the best investments of $5,000 you can make if you experience freak storms the way we have in the Northeast in the past few years– just in groceries that didn’t go bad through extended power outages alone it’s paid for itself. Some companies like Bank of America and Apple are actually integrating entire natural gas generation plants into their headquarters not only to protect against disasters but use a more environmentally friendly power source than coal. As more and more EVs begin to get plugged into the grid, it may even make sense for governments and utility companies to offer incentives to get more people generating their own power from solar, wind, or even natural gas to fill in the grid and reduce load on the system.

Tesla meeting targets though still not profitable

Tesla has been awarded with some huge awards in the last week, from the Model S earning it’s spot as one of the Inventions of the Year in Time Magazine to being named Automobile’s Car of the Year. They’re going to need that as they’re still spending more than they take in from car sales. In the big picture they’re just starting to stretch their legs, as they are meeting production targets and seeing steady demand for the Model S. Thankfully, they have access to enormous amounts of private capital and were buoyed by the US DoE loan that they fully drew down and are beginning to pay back (right wingers might want to note that the US government is expected to make back every penny from it, and as a bonus, Tesla is building their cars in California and employing Americans in high tech positions, not in China or Europe). I can only hope that Saab has as deep pockets as Elon Musk and his investors to weather the inevitable growing pains they face in similar startup waters.

Look, No Wires!

For all of you who think it’s too much of a hassle to plug your new Saab into your garage at night, not to worry. That’s what Plugless Power is promising for Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf owners. Again, I hope NEVS works from the get go to be compatible with these systems.

Note to NEVS: You may want to rethink your primary market

Two things caught my attention from Mattias Bergman’s NEVS presentation at Oktoberfest. First, that he was so insistent on China becoming the number one EV market in the world and second, that NEVS is still interested in the traditional Saab markets around the world. It’s not really news that most SU readers have been nervous about Saab being exported to their home markets. As the US has historically been the number one market for Saab, we certainly have reason to hope that NEVS wants to keep the North American sales infrastructure intact somehow. New evidence suggests they might want to heed that advice.

Another article at InsideEVs caught my attention. While NEVS may want to disagree with the evidence, McKinsey & Co, a leading consulting company who covers the EV market, has found that they might be able to produce 300,000 cars by 2017, and even that is dependent on conditions not yet seen in the market including enormous subsidies. Previous targets had them at 500,000 by 2015 (not happening) and 5,000,000 by 2020 (definitely not happening). Saab will be competing against several companies that have the innate advantage of building their cars in China, and if they’re competing for a dramatically smaller market, they’re going to need to rethink their global sales strategy.

Meanwhile, Pike Research who specializes in reporting on clean energy markets, has released a report that suggests that the US will be the #1 consumer of PEVs – Plug-in Electric Vehicles which includes Battery (BEVs) and Plug-in Hybrids (PHEVs)– in the world, ahead of even China. Their forecast suggests that US and Japanese producers (Ford, GM and Toyota, cough) will benefit most, though I’m hoping Saab slides in under the radar and surprises everyone.

The 80-page study predicts Ford and Toyota will lead the PEV market in terms of total vehicles sold in the U.S. from 2012 to 2020.

“Despite the early introduction of the Leaf, from Nissan, and the significant marketing push behind it, we expect Nissan to trail Toyota, Ford, and General Motors by a significant margin through the end of the decade,” says research director John Gartner. “Although Ford has been relatively slower than some competitors to enter the passenger PEV market, its future plans are ambitious, and it will be the only automaker to surpass 400,000 PEVs sold in the United States through 2020.”

As per the report, PEV sales in the United States should reach nearly 48,000 units in 2012, making the United States the country with the highest number of PEV sales.

The report expects the U.S. will maintain this leading position at least through 2020 – and beyond. Worldwide sales of PEVs are expected to surpass 1 million units in 2017, after 7 years in the market – about half the time it took hybrid electric vehicles to reach that level.

As battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are purchased in greater numbers over the next few years, Pike Research’s analysis indicates that significant regional differences in adoption patterns will emerge. For example, while PHEVs will outsell BEVs in North America, the converse is true in Europe and Asia.

While I’m not suggesting that the Chinese market not be a considerable target for NEVS, they may want to at least consider the necessity of selling EVs in the west sooner rather than later. Whether or not they admit it now to us or not, this reality may force them to change their business plan in a way that most of us would be pretty happy with. The report found that PHEVs will be more popular in the US, and if you couple that to the notion that Saab’s historical largest market has been the US and that the largest PEV market in the world will continue to be the US, then you’d hope that NEVS should concentrate on the US as their largest market too. Extending that logic further, since PHEVs are expected to be the primary driver of PEV growth in the US over the next decade, it would be wise for NEVS to focus on some sort of range extender option for their first ground up effort. It just makes business sense, and the analysts and facts support it.

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yes, although China is now trying to lead the world in PEVs by issuing subsidies, free license plates (gasoline cars needs a auction and lottery drawing system to get a license (no hukou, no qulification to even attend the lottery drawng system), demands is expected to remain flat in the next few years due to self-burning events of BYD E6 BEV and Zotye EV in the past two years, battery safety, short running range due to battery capacity, lack of charging facities. Actually in China, the fundamental question to popularize EVs is where the electricity come from. You may think… Read more »


I expect NEVS electical cars main market is densly populated areas. I think China is a significantly different market from the US, for three reasons: Infrastructure (I think the risk of fragmentation just like in the US mobile industry is significant), battery availability and subsidizing/regulatory issues. Add to that the fact that peak oil awareness is significantly higher in the China leadership.


-Natural gas: Seems a bit weird as an electric power generation means, aside from emergency use. It contradicts the idea of getting away from fossile carbon sources, and is less efficient than directly using the methane in combustion engine cars. -Wireless charging: Makes no sense to me. 1. Effciency is much worse than by direct connection. 2. For the next generation of cars, required charging power is either too high anyway, or will produce immense electro magnetic stray fields. 3. Since the car still needs to be parked above a specific pad, why not use a robotic arm that automatically… Read more »


When I talk with aviation-engineers we often come up on what usually breaks and which components are expensive. The usual answer is: anything that moves! =) I think that magnetic charging, even though its still in its infancy will be a good solution since it has no moving parts and thus require very little maintenance giving it a high profit margin. But then you have to ask yourself, is it worth digging up the asphalt at a parking lot just to install these huge magnetic chargers… probably easier and a lot cheaper just to put a charging cable that is… Read more »

Red J

I don’t know if it really is in its infancy. Maybe only the wrong companies are working on it.

For instance companies like Bombardier have system like their PRIMOVE system that deliver wireless charging to trams, buses cars or trucks, and even while they are running.


Good point. Back to manual.


Hate to say this but is Telsa is losing money charging their prices what hope does NEVS have. 🙁


Tesla has a strange model too that in my mind hinders them. If you want to buy a Tesla, they will bring a car to you to test drive. Sounds great but call me old fashion but I’d like to see the car in a showroom and meet the staff of the dealership. Oh but wait, they don’t have dealerships. Tesla does not have dealers and that to me will hinder sales. Without a dealer body I think it’s hard to install confidence that the company is here to stay and when my warranty is gone what will it cost… Read more »


This may well be, but as it seems, they still sell the cars faster than they can produce them, yet they loose money…

Maybe their business model is based on the assumption that when they sharge less now than what they actually needed, they can become a player until the prices for batteries go down enough, and after then, they will make a profit.
The question here of course is, why the battery costs should ge down.


So to assure that your already-overpriced and limited-range electric car is going to work during storms with power outages you need to pony up another $5000 for a natural gas generator? Thanks, but no thanks!

No 9

Tks Jeff for this very interesting report. A lot of food for thought.
Am I surprised the press only reported the Fiskers burning, not the Prii!

Allan B

This is another very interesting round-up of EV news. How are they going to solve the safety issue with the batteries, I wonder? This sort of thing is potentially fatal PR, for the companies concerned, the wider industry but most importantly – wonder – for humans driving the cars. Now, I realise that those were all parked vehicles Sandy hit, but consider a situation where somebody drives an EV into a deep flood and the fire starts when people are in the car. That might sound far-fetched, but where I come from there are a lot of very low-lying tidal… Read more »


The way these fires start is one of two ways. The obvious one is that the battery can deliver a lot of energy, so the salt water will make current flow, which results that in heating, just like regular heating. The other main issue is that overloading some kind of lithium cells to the point were they heat up above about 200C starts a chain reaction where the battery cell starts combusting inside (no external oxygen needed). The battery chemistry NEVS intend to use is supposed to not have this problem, the one used in the Volt does. The second… Read more »


Jeff, brilliant writing and very a very good summary. Thanks!

rafael guerra

One electric component touched salt water for long period of time and this caused fire , based on newspaper report more than 300 fiskers were damage by superstorm Sandy and the insurance policy will cover all this mess. Karma fisker is going to investigate the root cause problem and prepare a domestic recall
In my opinion a 100,000 usd EV car must be offer security and reliability

Jesse Crandle

I hate to be the one to mention this… but not only did they ration gas, no one had electricity… lol… So instead of waiting in line every other day for a few gallons of gas, you’d have ONE battery charge until your power came back on in… five, ten, twenty days? Doesn’t sound like it would be much better.


In fairness, in a natural disaster I don’t think it matters much what you have and for most driving would be an after thought. I know I couldn’t do much with rationed amounts of gas, I this I’d resort to taking transit to get around regardless of what I drove. What happens to gas prices in these situations too, I heard hotels were charging disgusting amounts, are gas companies the same? Nothing like hurting people further when they’re down.

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