Skip to content

Electric cars are a hazard on motorways, Government admits

February 23, 2020

By Paul Homewood



The law of unintended consequences and all that!


The potential hazards caused by electric cars on British roads are being urgently reviewed by the Government over concerns that the vehicles stop suddenly when they break down and that many cannot be towed.

Baroness Vere, a transport minister, said she was "astonished" to discover that electric vehicles tend to "stop very suddenly" when they cease to function, rather than coasting like conventional cars, and that they can take longer to be removed from motorways.

The Department for Transport is examining "short-term measures" to ensure electric cars can be removed from roads quickly when they break down, the peer revealed.

Baroness Vere disclosed details of the review during a House of Lords debate on smart motorways, which use hard shoulders as live lanes. The Sunday Telegraph has exposed serious safety concerns about the roads.

Speaking in the debate, Baroness Randerson, a Liberal Democrat transport spokesman said: "When an electric vehicle ceases to function, it stops; it does not coast in the way that other vehicles do.

"Smart motorways are supposed to be the future, but the future is electric. Those vehicles stop very suddenly. They also cannot be towed; they have to be put on a low-loader, which is a much more complex and longer process that will put rescue teams in greater danger.

"So can we have special consideration for how these new motorway layouts will operate when there are lots of electric vehicles on the road?"

Baroness Vere responded: "When I first heard this, I was absolutely astonished. Quite frankly, this is applicable not just to smart motorways but to every single road.

"We will need to be able to move electric vehicles, wherever they happen to stop or end their days … Work is under way to look at short-term measures to make sure we can get electric vehicles off to places of safety as quickly as possible, on whichever road, because that certainly would be a large drawback to the introduction of electric vehicles," she added in the debate, on Feb 13.

The concerns raised by Baroness Randerson echo a warning issued by the AA last month that the rise of electric vehicles could be incompatible with smart motorways, "due to the lack of emergency refuge areas." 

Edmund King, the AA president, said: "You can’t flat tow some electric vehicles more than 800 metres, some you can’t flat tow at all. So the problem is they will take longer to get off the motorways."

The Department for Transport said it will issue an update on the review "in due course".

  1. February 23, 2020 11:38 am

    And don’t mention the fact that when an EV catches fire it can take hours before the fire is extinguished. Just wait until all lorries are also electric to meet the net zero by 2050 target.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      February 23, 2020 12:27 pm

      That’s just scratching the surface Mr B. Apparently, you can’t be certain that the fire is actually out so hours later it can burst out again. In some countries the procedure for dealing with battery car fires is ti arrive with a large skip that is filled with water and the car is dropped in it to ensure that it won’t re-ignite. Does this sound quick and easy? On a live running motorway? Or will we see more closures and delays due to dickheads in battery cars?

      In the meantime, the first battery car only road in the UK will open on 18 March – or should that be close? – but the much vaunted launch with Saddo The Tieless cutting the ribbon has been replaced by a low key opening. Inviting the press to the introduction of long traffic queues is probably not a good idea.

    • Pancho Plail permalink
      February 23, 2020 7:08 pm

      I dread the thought of a fire in the latest 100Mw battery that Shell is getting the Chinese to build.

      • Gerry, England permalink
        February 23, 2020 9:23 pm

        Destroyed in Seconds on Quest once had a fire at a scrap metal yard that included titanium and the firemen used water! Eff me was it spectacular!! Water and the metal ‘iums’ don’t mix well at all.

  2. GeoffB permalink
    February 23, 2020 11:40 am

    Good old greens,,…law of unintended consequences once again……Diesel, wood pellets, bio ethanol, bio diesel, anaerobic digesters all causing more harm than they solved.

  3. February 23, 2020 12:10 pm

    I will once more mention the fact that earth is coming out of a very low CO2 period which lasted more than 200 million years and may be a major reason for the demise of the megafauna which went extinct during the Pleistocene. Very low CO2, led to depauperate vegetation, which, in some cases, did not reproduce. The herbivores had less to eat and thus the carnivores had fewer herbivores to eat. The rise in CO2 following the Pleistocene melt led to greater vegetation around the world. However, it was still low until the Industrial Revolution. More recent studies have shown a marked re-greening of the world.

    Someone needs to tell the electric car people that fossil fuels are a boon. Not only to mankind, but to vegetation and herbivores and thus carnivores. Who knew?

    • Broadlands permalink
      February 23, 2020 1:32 pm

      Fossil fuels will be needed regardless of PV vehicles. But, how much atmospheric CO2 is too much, and if there is an optimum value how will it be determined, and how could it possibly be kept there anyhow? All this concern over a trace gas seems stupid.

      • Derek Reynolds permalink
        February 24, 2020 11:47 am

        How much is too much? Well, hundreds of millions of years ago there was 7,000ppm. Submariners operate in volumes up to 5,000ppm – astronauts in their capsules higher stiil. Commercial greenhouses inject CO2 to raise it to 1,200ppm to ensure plant growth is at its maximum.

        CO2 is a trace gas even at those high concentrations, but nobody dies from it. But a lack of Oxygen, now that’s different!

  4. keith holland permalink
    February 23, 2020 12:16 pm

    Yes, everything the greens touch turns into a nightmare. They should be called environmental vandals, not environmentalists.

    • Harry Passfield permalink
      February 23, 2020 2:50 pm

      Enviro-mentalist, does it for me. Their mission has nothing to do with the environment; it is a means to an end. But hey, we know that.

  5. MrGrimNasty permalink
    February 23, 2020 12:27 pm

    One accident can cause 6 hours of gridlock almost county wide where I live.

    It’s going to be impossible with electric cars blocking roads all over the place.

    You can imagine the soon to be commonplace dilemma, someone has to get to work, forgot to plug the car in to recharge, or the ‘smarts’ have sucked all the juice out to balance the grid, looks like there’s just enough left, but the traffic is a bit heavier or the weather inclement and lights/demister/wipers required and you grind to a halt.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      February 23, 2020 12:35 pm

      It is not as if the breakdown truck can turn up and say, ‘out of fuel – ok, I will just stick a gallon in and off you go to the nearest garage’ Or, with foresight you might have a gallon in the boot anyway – I always do when travelling in unknown places.

      • Harry Passfield permalink
        February 23, 2020 2:52 pm

        Imagine….a driverless breakdown truck!! Oh boy.

    • Tonyb permalink
      February 23, 2020 6:53 pm

      Yes, this is something that greens don’t seem to want to accept.

      It is cold. It is hilly. You have the heater, wipers, radio, lights on. You are carrying four people and their luggage

      , Unless you have fully charged the battery the range will be far less than you believe. Very hilly Dartmoor is close to us and it has narrow lanes. Quite how long it would take a low loader to rescue the car could be measured in days.

      • Pancho Plail permalink
        February 23, 2020 7:12 pm

        You forgot driving at more than 30mph.

      • February 23, 2020 11:42 pm

        At least you won’t be towing anything. The only BEV authorised for UK towing is the Tesla Model X costing around 90 grand new.

      • sid permalink
        February 24, 2020 12:18 pm

        Tony, don’t think of Dartmoor, think of the M25 in the sleet with all those EV’s nose to tail and all with a mission to get to Heathrow and Gatwick. Wipers, heater and the desperation to get to the flight to the very last joule of energy. Till it stops. and the backup grows.

  6. David permalink
    February 23, 2020 12:35 pm

    How daft is it to design an electric car with no mechanism to permit towing? I think long term the greater danger will be people running out of battery on winding rural roads. Human nature being what it is,many drivers will take a chance and do trips on a low battery which then runs out resulting in the road being totally blocked until some rescue comes with a charger.

    • February 23, 2020 1:11 pm

      A diesel, petrol or gas powered charger!!!

      • Chaswarnertoo permalink
        February 24, 2020 8:42 am

        I have the solution. Tesla X towing a trailer with a dirty, great, diesel generator on it. 😂

  7. February 23, 2020 1:12 pm

    The chaos can only worsen as electric vehicles age and their batteries hold less and less charge. The signs of things to come was a letter a few weeks ago in ‘Honest John’s’ excellent motoring question & answer column in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph. Someone asked for advice on what to do with his seven year old electric Renault which could only hold 30% of its chargeable capacity. HJ’s answer was to either put up with it, pay £2000 for a new battery or scrap it because the car was not worth more than the cost of the battery. If, as seems likely, we are entering a period where the activity of the Sun is declining and global temperatures falling electric cars are the last thing we need.

    • Mike Jackson permalink
      February 23, 2020 5:33 pm

      “… electric cars are the last thing we need.“

      I don’t think they’re even that high on the list.

  8. It doesn't add up... permalink
    February 23, 2020 1:23 pm

    Surely towing should allow the motor to be used as a generator to recharge the battery? After all, that’s what the regenerative braking system does. You just need a beefy diesel tow truck….

    • Joe Public permalink
      February 23, 2020 4:59 pm


  9. February 23, 2020 2:21 pm

    Ban EV’s from motorways ?

  10. Gamecock permalink
    February 23, 2020 2:44 pm

    ‘concerns that the vehicles stop suddenly when they break down and that many cannot be towed’

    Betcha they can be bulldozed.

    “One accident can cause 6 hours of gridlock almost county wide where I live.”

    Ipso facto, bulldozing is the greater good. Writing off the POS EV is certainly less than the cost to the community of a 6 hour shutdown.

  11. Harry Passfield permalink
    February 23, 2020 2:55 pm

    OK. I’ll try this again. How does a driverless car (dlc) decide to overtake if the cars in front are also dlc and there’s more than one? How does it know what they are?

    • Gamecock permalink
      February 23, 2020 3:37 pm

      And what’s to keep teenagers from goofing them?

      What could be more fun than causing a pileup on the motorway?

  12. Ian Wilkinson permalink
    February 23, 2020 3:58 pm

    Not only will the wheels ease to turn but the hazard lights won’t work either I guess.

    • Dave Cowdell permalink
      February 23, 2020 8:48 pm

      Optional for EVs are acetylene hazard lamps.

  13. Adrian, East Anglia permalink
    February 23, 2020 4:01 pm

    More to the point, which genius thought it would be a good idea to create ‘Smart Motorways’ in the first place. Must surely be accidents waiting to happen. Plenty happen on hard shoulders as it is.

    • Gamecock permalink
      February 24, 2020 1:09 am

      Quick! Trademark “smart” and don’t allow the government to use it again.

  14. Vernon permalink
    February 23, 2020 4:22 pm

    Please excuse my ignorance but do electric cars have gearboxes? Is the problem that they can’t be put into neutral?

  15. Dave Ward permalink
    February 23, 2020 6:00 pm

    There are two aspects to this situation – towing and sudden stopping. Towing limitations apply to most ICE vehicles with automatic transmission, whether older torque converter or the newer DSG “Automated Manual” types. In both cases engine driven pumps provide hydraulic pressure to engage brake bands or clutches, and also to provide lubrication. In the event of a “dead” engine it means that the vehicle will normally “Coast” to a stop, but also that towing is either verboten, or very limited – a flat bed or “Suspended Tow” will be needed, unless the prop shaft can be easily disconnected. HGV recovery operators often have to craw underneath trucks at the roadside to do this, or if they’re lucky they may be able to take off a hub cover and remove a half-shaft before towing.

    Now to to sudden stopping with EV’s. They will have either a traditional Brush Type DC motor with a PWM controller, or a lighter, more reliable 3 phase AC induction motor with a variable frequency inverter drive. You can draw direct comparisons with power tools like cordless drills, which are moving over from the former to the latter. Both types almost universally have an “Electric Brake” which stops them very rapidly when you release the trigger. This is done by short – circuiting the motor, which then becomes a generator with a huge (mechanical) load. The same principle is widely used in industry to stop machinery quickly and reduce the risk of accidents.

    As far as EV’s go, most (if not all) now have Regenerative Braking, which can put some charge back into the battery when slowing. This will be controlled by the same high-power electronics which are connected to the motor, and it’s going to be this which will be damaged by towing, if not powered up by the main battery. And if the un-powered default state has the “electric brake” engaged it will be extremely difficult to tow the vehicle in any case. The faster it’s towed the more resistance will be encountered – diesel & electric rail locomotives use the same principle to hold back thousands of tons when going down inclines.

    The only answer (and it’s not going to happen*) will be to mandate that ALL EV’s have a “Master” isolator or plug which can be manually operated. This won’t prevent sudden slowing down, but would (or should?) allow towing away from the roadside.

    *Manufacturers will refuse to install them, on cost and reliability implications.

    Further to Vernon & Stonyground, I believe that some have individual wheel motors, and others a single motor with reduction gearbox and conventional differential/driveshaft arrangement. My thoughts above will (hopefully) cover this…

    • Joe Public permalink
      February 23, 2020 7:55 pm


    • OldCynic permalink
      February 24, 2020 6:11 am

      In the same way that the government sets rules for cars: “you must have seat belts, you must have airbags” etc they could mandate that:

      “EVs must be capable of being flat-towed”
      “EVs must not execute a dead-stop/emergency stop when the main battery runs out” (ie wheels must not lock up. Whether that is accomplished by carrying a spare “get you to the size of the road” battery, or changes to the design is irrelevant. Just make it a rule.)

      Manufacturers will soon change their designs, if they can’t sell cars in the UK or in any other market that adopts such Road Rules

  16. Dave Ward permalink
    February 23, 2020 6:46 pm

    “which then becomes a generator with a huge (mechanical) load”

    Ooops – I should have written “huge (electrical) load”…

    • jack broughton permalink
      February 23, 2020 9:04 pm

      Thanks for the excellent review Dave. I wonder if they could carry a small emergency battery for last resort. Suppose it depends on the fault that causes the stoppage.

      • Dave Ward permalink
        February 23, 2020 10:18 pm

        ” I wonder if they could carry a small emergency battery for last resort”

        If it was able to power up the motor control circuits, in such a way as to allow the vehicle to be towed without further damage, then it would be a partial answer. But it all comes down to cost, space, weight, and whether anyone would consider it a worthwhile extra. Of course very few would – UNTIL they found themselves broken down with a huge queue of impatient drivers behind them!

        As to Tonyb’s query below – how rapidly an EV would slow depends on what sort of fault is involved. All I can say is if it involved any form of “Short Circuit” across the motor(s), you’d better hope the seat belts work when that happens. It would be much the same as having a petrol/diesel engine “Seize” without warning – except you can’t hit the clutch to disengage it…

  17. February 23, 2020 6:49 pm

    Just imagine you drive your motorway at 130 km per hour and suddenly, one of those buggers stops before you. You better keep your distance and pray the next vehicle behind you does the same. If they cannot even coast into the emergency lane on motorways, they will tend to rapidly-produce traffic jams. Who is going to pay for the economic damage caused? All of us non EV drivers of course. Another subsidy? Sorry folks but you are constantly talking about externalities.

    • Tonyb permalink
      February 23, 2020 6:58 pm

      When we say stop suddenly, are we talking about an emergency type stop, a coasting for some yards stop or a stop dead stop. The consequences for other drivers are bad enough but it could also be very serious for the drivers and passengers.

      There are a fair few electric cars around now, so presumably there must be some practical experience about the consequences

  18. Tonyb permalink
    February 23, 2020 6:55 pm

    I am a very experienced driver and have only been on a smart motorway once. I found it very intimidating and the consequences of breaking down, in the dark especially, do not bear thinking about.

  19. Pancho Plail permalink
    February 23, 2020 7:17 pm

    Well, if you embed a couple of conducting rails in each carriageway of the motorway and have two sprung pick-ups coming out of the bottom of the car which will pick up the electrical power from the rails ………

    • dfhunter permalink
      February 24, 2020 12:22 am

      but you always come off on tight corners, research says!!

  20. Dick Goodwin permalink
    February 23, 2020 7:22 pm

    Nice to see someone’s awake.

  21. StephenP permalink
    February 23, 2020 9:50 pm

    Rapid chargers are supposed to charge up batteries to 80% in a relatively short time.
    It is recommended that you recharge EVs when the batteries reach20% charge.
    So does this mean that one only has 80 minus 20 percent of the capacity of the battery available for actual driving. This would seem to bring the distance of a 300 mile vehicle down to 180 miles between charges?
    If this is the case then when I go to London I would just have enough charge to get me onto the M25 before needing to recharge.
    If stuck in a traffic jam on the M25 on a cold winter’s night. OOPS.

  22. dfhunter permalink
    February 23, 2020 11:57 pm

    then why is the AA offering –

    “Breakdown cover for your hybrid or electric car
    Drive an electric vehicle or hybrid car? You’ll be reassured to know that our trained experts are on hand to help you at the roadside if you break down. We’ll come out whether you drive a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid or a battery electric vehicle.
    Battery run out? We’ll tow you to a charging point or your destination – whichever’s nearer.
    Our trusty mechanics are High Voltage Awareness trained – so you’re in safe hands.
    We’ll repair all other faults as standard.
    You can also find your nearest charging point with our handy app. Choose from more than 500 hook-ups, which can be filtered by connection type, to find the right one for your vehicle.”

    • Gamecock permalink
      February 24, 2020 1:16 am

      Does the app show how many are already in line to use the charger?

    • February 24, 2020 10:44 am

      It’s a bit pricey!

      Full cover is £28/month (not sale offer), but I pay about £40pa to Green Flag for the same cover

  23. February 24, 2020 8:28 am

    Problem solved. Step 1. Every so many miles apart are teams of horses complete with two trolley sets on which the offending vehicle can be jacked and towed to the side and off the road. This primarily gives a cross country capability to reach the incident – access by road will be impossible due to the tail-back. Step 2 is the actual recovery, undertaken at night when traffic is minimal. The horse team will also have a charger or more for taking the vehicle’s occupants to a ‘safe house’ pending arrangements for their onward journeying.

  24. Matt Clarke permalink
    February 24, 2020 12:08 pm

    In a previous life , l used to train aircrew about the hazards of Lithium iron batteries. The ONLY way to put out a fire in one of these, is to completely remove all heat sources and submerge in water, then wait at least 30 minutes as they can self ignite. The emrgency services , would need access and the resultant wreck would have to be treated as a Haz Chem event. ( Hazardous Chemicals), because of the chemicals involved. I doubt anyone has thought this through. Because the GREENS SAY ELECTRIC CARS ARE THE FUTURE.

  25. Mike Higton permalink
    February 25, 2020 12:22 am

    As Dave Ward has already said, how is the towing problem with an EV any different to an ICE car with an automatic gearbox?
    As for stopping suddenly, that would require some major failure causing a/the motor to seize up. Is that any more likely than a total lock-up of a conventional car through engine or gearbox failure?
    When EVs get to lower levels of charge the driver gets constant warnings and, as the remaining charge declines, the car’s performance reduces. There are videos of EVs being driven to a complete standstill: it is a long, slow process as they go slower and slower, ending up in a crawl.
    I’m no fan of EVs but, under present policies, they are a viable option for folk who do not need to cover long distances regularly. They also have the benefit of zero tailpipe emissions which can only be good for congested cities. For business users the tax savings make a compelling argument (at least until HMRC finds it is losing too much income!).
    There are other hurdles in the way of widescale adoption, more significant than these scare stories – some have been mentioned in earlier comments. They include: source of the electricity; charging infrastructure; welfare and environmental issues of the materials for batteries and motors; fire risks; etc.

  26. February 27, 2020 1:19 pm

    Smart Motorways are a great idea
    The implementation however is abysmal
    not enough sensors…..way too long a delay time in detecting stationary vehicles and closing the lanes.

    if a car stops, the lane should be closed IMMEDIATLEY
    all the accidents are due to delays in that process

  27. Flu-Bird permalink
    February 28, 2020 5:12 pm

    When Jetson’s type flying car that folds into briefcase

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: