October 12, 2023

4 ways to help protect your fleet while hauling lithium ion batteries


Lithium-ion batteries power some of the most commonplace consumer electronics — including laptops, cellphones and watches. Still, most people do not pay them much mind unless they are boarding an airplane or mailing a package. Under the wrong circumstances, however, these small parts can cause big problems.

Christopher Carpenter, inland marine regional lead for Risk Control Inland Marine at Travelers, appeared on FreightWaves’ What The Truck?!? to explain the risks associated with lithium ion batteries, as well as how to reduce them.

“Unlike standard alkaline batteries, most lithium batteries contain a flammable electrolyte with an incredibly high energy density. They can overheat and ignite under certain conditions, such as a short circuit or improper design or assembly,” Carpenter said. “Once ignited, lithium cell and battery fires can be very difficult to extinguish.”

The nature of lithium-ion batteries — and the gasses they produce while burning — can make it difficult for even the most prepared fire departments to extinguish these fires.

These battery cells tend to be most volatile before they are inserted into finished electronics. That means some of the biggest risks associated with these products occur during transport to and from various manufacturers.

Clearly, the best course of action is to prevent these fires from occurring in the first place. While it is impossible to plan for all eventualities, there are several steps fleets can take to safeguard the health of their drivers, their equipment and the motoring public while hauling lithium-ion batteries.

Get the right insurance

Fleets interested in hauling lithium ion batteries should make a call to their insurance agents before ever accepting the first load. Because these products have the potential to be so destructive, some insurance companies may specifically exclude them from their coverage offerings.

It is crucial that fleets moving these batteries are well informed about their insurance policies. That includes being sure that coverage for hauling lithium ion batteries is available. Otherwise, the legal and financial responsibility for any issues that occur during transit, will fall squarely on the fleet.

Train and prepare drivers

Not only should drivers know that they are transporting lithium-ion batteries, they should also be trained to respond to high-risk situations — including fires — that could occur en route.

“You need hazmat certification if you are hauling lithium batteries, like electric vehicle batteries,” Carpenter said. “This means your driver needs to be hazmat trained and certified. This comes down to proper driver training and selection.”

Beyond training, drivers should be acutely aware of the fact that these types of shipments can be particularly dense, making the load heavier. This means that the truck may take longer than normal to stop and accelerate, which drivers must take into consideration in order to avoid accidents.

Carpenter recommended putting experienced drivers with strong track records on these jobs in order to help reduce the likelihood of accidents. Additionally, he suggested utilizing telematics monitoring features to access driver behavior and ensure the right drivers are selected to move these high-risk commodities.

Stay on top of vehicle maintenance

One of the most basic — but most impactful — things fleets can do to safeguard their fleets when hauling lithium-ion batteries is simply staying on top of vehicle maintenance. 

“You sure don’t want to have a vehicle fire or wheel well fire due to a failed bearing on the road when you’re hauling lithium batteries,” Carpenter said.

A vehicle fire is a big deal no matter what a truck is transporting, but a highway fire involving these batteries could easily turn catastrophic. Completing regular tractor and trailer inspections — as well as being proactive about routine maintenance — can significantly reduce the chances that a fire may break out.

Track and monitor temperature 

Fleets hauling lithium-ion batteries should be equipped to track and monitor temperatures inside the trailer. These commodities are sensitive to weather fluctuations, particularly high heat levels.

“If things get too hot, in extreme cases, something called “thermal runaway” can occur — and can cause batteries to explode and start fires,” Carpenter said.

Thermal runaway is a feedback loop that happens when the temperature within the battery cell climbs high enough to cause a chemical reaction. Once this feedback loop starts, it is extremely difficult to stop.

“Some lithium-ion battery fires can last days, Carpenter said. “There is also the potential for delayed reignition, making firefighting extremely tough and time intensive.”

In addition to the safety risks associated with these fires, fleets can face serious financial consequences.

Even with the proper insurance coverage, fleets may have to file claims across multiple lines of insurance coverage, including motor truck cargo loss, physical damage loss to tractor and trailer and general liability. Fleets will likely also be responsible for cleanup and disposal fees associated with the fire.

“Ultimately, it really boils down to awareness of the potential volatile nature of lithium batteries, driver selection, driver controls, load securement inspection and maintenance procedures,” Carpenter said.

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