Did the autonomous and electric vehicle makers ask for YOUR feedback?
It’s time for the fire service to get a seat at the table of technological advancements that will impact our service delivery
When it comes to firefighter safety, the fire service as a whole has critical partnerships with allied research agencies, primarily UL and NIST. However, there exists a significant disconnect between the fire service and many other groups and research organizations whose work directly impacts our service delivery.
Consider, for example, the advancements with autonomous and electric vehicle (EV) technology – advancements that are changing society for good in some ways but endangering citizens and complicating our response efforts in other ways.
Did you have a say in how such technology is rolled out or the potential fire impact?
Recent news has spotlighted serious safety hazards where driverless ride-share vehicles have clogged roads, run into apparatus, or simply frozen. In the most recent case, a patient in the back of an ambulance died when, according to the fire department, autonomous vehicles blocked the rig, preventing it from getting to the hospital in time. The vehicle company denies the allegations lodged by the fire department.
According to HotCars.com, as of January 2023, 34 states have published legislation on autonomous vehicles. As you would expect, the rules differ state by state.
It’s also helpful for us to understand the different levels of autonomous vehicles, which are reflected somewhat differently in state legislation:
- Level 0: Requires a driver; may have certain automatic features (i.e., emergency breaking or lane departure warning systems);
- Level 1: Requires a driver; may use adaptive cruise control or other lane control features;
- Level 2: Requires a driver; uses both adaptive cruise and lane centering control;
- Level 3: Requires a driver but may drive itself under most circumstances;
- Level 4: Does not have steering wheel or pedals but may allow for some driver control; and
- Level 5: Fully Automatic – no driver required under any circumstances.
A white paper by Siemens Digital Industries Software touts the growth of the autonomous vehicle demand, and makes this observation for its readers:
“Future vehicles will be highly complex, cross-domain machines connected to other vehicles and city infrastructure. To develop these complex machines, OEMs should move away from traditional methodologies and embrace integrated digital solutions for designing, testing, and engineering on every level, from chip to the city.”
Is the fire service involved in the design, testing, and engineering of these complex, cross-domain vehicles and city infrastructure? If we are or have been, I haven’t heard about our involvement. Did they ask you for your input?
While the proverbial horse has left the barn, two-thirds of the states already have laws on the books. At the street level, the best we can do is research and learn how we can best respond and react to autonomous vehicles we may encounter.
For the past few years, we’ve been hearing more and more about EV fires – and how they just won’t go out. Crews dump tens of thousands of gallons of water on a vehicle where a standard ICE vehicle could be extinguished with 500 gallons – not to mention that some EVs can later reignite, often at a tow yard hours later.
The 2023 Firefighter Safety Stand Down focused specifically on the dangers of lithium-ion battery fires, and the complexities of thermal runaway are covered in multiple articles here on FireRescue1.com as far back as 2019:
- Beware of the thermal runaway danger posed by lithium batteries
- What firefighters need to know about electric car batteries
- How lithium-ion batteries are changing fire department response
- Electric vehicle fires: Where the waiting game wins
There’s plenty of information out there NOW, but still not a tremendous number of solutions. Fire departments around the country have either received no information or been inundated by the “latest-and-greatest” claims from the makers of the next extinguishment answer. Several fire departments have piloted new extinguishment systems, but none of those systems has been vetted and validated through UL or NIST. Thermal runaway will continue to be a significant challenge for fire departments until a suitable, scalable and transportable solution is found. Time will tell.
And it’s time that’s the focus here.
Billions of dollars in research has gone toward the production of EVs. How much of that was spent on safety/emergency response research? I suspect there was some, but I also suspect there were far fewer zeros at the end of the safety/emergency response research check. Had the fire service been more involved in the process, we could be riding the technology curve, not sprinting to catch up to the curve.
Again, the EV horse has left the barn, and the fire service has far more to gain than lose from the EV research and industry partners. From electric fire engines to the plethora of battery-operated rescue and cutting tools, fire departments are deeply engaged in the operations and use of EVs. From high-speed, large-capacity charging systems in fire stations to remote charging stations in shopping center parking lots, the EV infrastructure has taken on a life of its own.
Calls to action
While the autonomous vehicle situation is an emerging concern, the EV issue will be at critical mass for many fire departments that find themselves behind this curve. We must all take the time to research and learn from the resources available to us, and share your concerns and mitigation strategies within your communities.
Fire chiefs need to speak up at the highest levels to ensure that the concerns of the fire and EMS industry are researched along with systemic industry technologic research. Through the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Congressional Fire Services Institute, we work closely with each of our industry standards and research partners.
It’s time we find a way to be more engaged early in the process of technology that will impact the work we do. We cannot be left to pick up the pieces of short-sighted technological advances that may make life easier, albeit less safe.
Did they ask YOU for your input? I didn’t think so.
Listen for more:
Electric vehicle fires: Products, strategies and the power of time
From ‘let it burn’ to full submersion, Captain Patrick Durham explains the continuum of extinguishment approaches