Total your Tesla? It might be doing fine in Ukraine

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New Teslas are an increasingly common sight on North American roads, but they don’t stay new forever—and some get into accidents. If one takes more damage than is worth fixing, insurers might send it to a scrapyard.

But a scrapyard might not want damaged Teslas either. It’s much harder to make money from the relatively few parts that go into electric vehicles than gas-powered ones, and there’s the added potential that its batteries may spontaneously catch fire. So from a scrapyard, a damaged Tesla might be shipped to a buyer overseas.

But where do such vehicles end up? These days, the answer might well be Ukraine. As Wired reports, the war-torn nation has a thriving electric-vehicle resurrection industry, even as it battles Russia.

Ivan Malakhovsky, who owns a repair business in Ukraine, told the publication that most Teslas driven in Ukraine were once involved in wrecks in North America. And when an EV battery is damaged beyond repair, his team will sometimes break up its cells to reuse them in drones on the battlefield, or simply in electric scooters. 

But EV batteries can pose dangers, as a high-end-vehicle scrapyard in Rancho Cordova, Calif., learned a few months ago, when a Tesla Model S spontaneously caught fire after sitting idle for three months. The vehicle had been salvaged “due to flooding from Florida,” Metro Fire of Sacramento wrote on X.

After Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September last year, the fact that saltwater can cause EV batteries to catch fire later gained more attention. An EV battery that becomes ruptured during a collision can also catch fire

“Alarmingly, even after the car fires have been extinguished, they can reignite in an instant,” U.S. Senator Rick Scott wrote to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Sadly, some Florida homes which survived Hurricane Ian have now been lost to fires caused by flooded EVs.”

As the National Fire Protection Association notes, EV fires “are less common of an occurrence” compared to traditional vehicles, but are “more complicated of an event, since EVs fires can last longer and have the potential for electrical shock and reignition.” 

It adds, “the potential for fire-related hazards associated with the lithium-ion batteries that power these forms of transport is real and often underestimated.” 

In the Rancho Cordova scrapyard, “the vehicle was just sitting by itself, not around anything else,” Capt. Parker Wilbourn of Metro Fire told CBS13 News in Sacramento. “Nothing else could have potentially started it.”

As Metro Fire noted on X—while tagging Tesla CEO Elon Musk—the Model S was “surrounded by millions of dollars in salvaged vehicles including Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bentleys.”

When asked why it tagged Musk, the fire department responded, “Vehicles spontaneously combusting after sitting for weeks-months is a new challenge for both our community and fire suppression personnel. Thankfully this vehicle wasn’t inside a building.” 

Tesla, on its website, offers a “First Responders Information” page on how to deal with fires for each of its models. For a Model S that catches fire, it writes:

“There must be no fire, smoke, audible popping/hissing, or heating present in the high voltage battery for at least 45 minutes before the vehicle can be released to second responders (such as law enforcement, vehicle transporters, etc.)…Always advise second responders that there is a risk of battery re-ignition.”

In Ukraine, EV repair specialists like Malakhovsky seem willing to accept the potential risks. 

“We have problems in our lives and can fix them, whether a battery or a full-scale invasion,” he said. “Electric cars, electric car batteries—it’s no problem.”

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