Shipping electric vehicles safely

Every year, fires occur on both RORO and car carriers, resulting in large losses for cargo clients. One issue that raises cause for concern is the varying availability of firefighting equipment onboard these vessels.

There are two vessel types used to ship electric vehicles: pure car and truck carriers (PCTCs) and roll-on/roll-off (RORO/ROPAX) vessels. These two vessel types have significant differences in their design, therefore many safety measures, such as risk control options and incident responses vary considerably.

For example, PCTCs are equipped with CO2 or foam-based extinguishing systems onboard, while RORO vessels are equipped with water drencher (sprinkler) extinguishing systems. It is important to recognise that individual assessments or risks relating to different vessel types are needed. Furthermore, to combat a fire onboard, different approaches will be needed when it comes to firefighting tactics.  

In 2023, research was conducted on RORO vessels as part of the EU’s LASH FIRE international research project, which aims to “significantly reduce the risk of fires on board RORO ships” and enhance the safety of the vessels. However, there is still very little research regarding fire extinguishing of electric vehicles onboard PCTCs.

The roll-on/roll-off ship

RORO and ROPAX (passenger RORO) vessels are designed to carry wheeled cargo on 1-5 different decks, including cars, motorcycles, trucks, trailers, and buses, with all driven on and off the ship on their own power and wheels. RORO vessels are equipped with sprinkler extinguishing systems. ROPAX vessels are designed in the same way, utilising cargo decks, but also carry passengers.  

It is common for the cargo to consist of a mix of new and used vehicles, e.g., both electric vehicles and ICEV (internal combustion engine) cars, trucks, trailers, and buses, at the same time.  

It is estimated that there are fewer fires from electric vehicles (EVs) compared with fires from conventional vehicles when driven over the same distance. Current statistics indicate that the probability of an EV fire is lower than that of a fire in an internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) relative to the total number of vehicles.  

Car carrier - pure car and truck carriers   

PCTCs are purpose-built vessels for the transportation of different types of rolling cargo, e.g., new and used passenger cars and trucks, heavy construction equipment, and other heavy loads. PCTCs are equipped with CO2 or foam-based extinguishing systems.  

PCTCs are usually configured with 6-13 decks for the loading of different vehicle types. The height between the decks can be adjusted depending on the types of vehicles being transported. The height of the vehicle decks is extremely low to reduce the loss of cargo space. Adjustable decks further optimise the cargo space. The vehicles are loaded with very little space between them. This naturally impedes quick access to specific cars or other vehicles.  

A particular challenge associated with PCTCs arises when the vessels are docked in ports. When a fire breaks out, the CO2 extinguishing systems cannot be used. Specifically, when both the internal doors and the stern/side ramps are open during the loading process, the CO2 cannot be contained within the vessel.

Foam-based extinguishing systems are less effective due to the uneven airflow which reduces the ability of the foam to spread evenly and consistently. In addition, due to their construction, the ramps cannot be closed quickly. Furthermore, external firefighting teams are often not familiar with the design of vessels and are not trained to fight fires in such environments. 

International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI)

In August 2023, the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) published their extensive report, Best practice & recommendations for the safe carriage of electric vehicles (EVs). To learn more about how to ship electric vehicles safely, from the loading process to firefighting recommendations, please view the report.  

Best practice&recommendations for the safe carriage of electric vehicles (EVs) 2023. (pdf, 418 kb)

Written by

Rikard Sahl and Kristian Orispää, If