Fires, Political Correctness, the Press, and... Cars?

Hurricane Sandy flooded the docks at Newark, where thousands of new cars were destroyed. But only the hybrids set themselves on fire.

WASHINGTON, November 8, 2012 – Of course, we’re always supposed to “make lemonade, when life hands us lemons.” That’s especially true if you’re trying to sell lemons to people who think they’re buying peaches.

It’s not really a surprise when high-density batteries short out and make a fire. It’s kinda inevitable. What’s strange is how good a company spokesperson, aided by a sympathetic press, can make it sound.

Hurricane Sandy covered a lot of the docks in Newark, New Jersey, under a dozen feet of water. Some of her victims were cars. Most simply got really, really wet. Many were destroyed; but only a few caught fire.

Among the reported losses were over a dozen Fisker Karma models, equipped with batteries made by the now-bankrupt A123 company. Three Toyota Prius models, two plug-ins and a standard hybrid, also succumbed, according to The New York Times:

The interesting thing was how the Toyota lady, Cindy Knight, explained it to the Times reporter: “One Prius out and out burned, the others just kind of smoldered and got really hot.” The NYT reporter then pointed out that “That’s three cars out of the 4,000 Toyotas that were at Port Newark during the storm, including more than 2,128 plug-in or hybrid models.” So, three cars that catch fire when they get soaked, and that’s OK? Well, maybe… but that 1/7 of 1% of the electrics might eventually have been sold to someone (check your Carfax!) – and the cars that spontaneously combusted were all electrics.

Fisker’s official statement ruled out the cars’ lithium-ion batteries as “a cause or contributing factor” in the fires. The statement blamed a low-voltage Vehicle Control Unit that shorted out as a consequence of its having been submerged, according to World Car Fans:

 Of course, the VCU doesn’t have any power of its own, and submerging a component that has no power going into it would make it wet and possibly corroded… but not make it set itself on fire. If the cars hadn’t been packing batteries, shorting out anything on them wouldn’t have mattered.

Ignoring the irony of a flood’s causing fires, another way to say what the NYT was saying would be to note that, of the cars that burned up all by themselves, 100% were hybrids. But hybrids have a lot of political correctness behind them, and stating the facts that way would just be… inflammatory.


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Tim Kern

Tim Kern taught economics for fifteen years, and discovered that understanding life is easy; it’s recognizing reality that takes practice. He holds a music degree, and later earned an MBA in finance from Northwestern University. He has lived across the US, and now makes his home in Anderson, Indiana.

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