The ramifications of hybrids and electrics in motorsports is a significant concern. These vehicles bring a drivetrain type that would appear to be a major hazard to the casual observer. It is my belief that with the correct education and knowledge, equipped correctly with gear appropriate to today’s needs, wearing the proper personal protective envelope, and managed and led by proactive, focused command personnel, any incident will be a manageable hazard and not one to be frightened of.
Nonetheless, there are hazards that are commonplace today that we did not have a decade ago, including high-voltage drivetrain power and the use of massive quantities of composite materials. These two concerns alone have issues that are far-reaching in planning, management, and mitigation. While we need to make some changes, they are not difficult to implement. We do need to take both into account now, today, because they are here, already around us, and will become even more prolific as time continues.
In addition, the other hazards that we previously faced, such as fuels, engine fluids, etc., are still here and they are not going anywhere. The question is which direction do we, as the motorsport safety team providers, need to go?
- We need to have the proper rescue tools and equipment to disentangle the driver or crew from a vehicle and to stabilize the scene.
- We need to have the proper layering of fire-suppression equipment and agents to rapidly suppress and extinguish all types of fires, including those involving hydrocarbon-based composites and hybrid power systems and especially battery cells.
- We need better fire agents instead of relying upon old-technology ABC powders than just do not work well or even at all with today’s technology.
- We need to be protected by the correct and proper protective envelope for the role we perform on the track so that we know we are safe and can go home each day after every event.
- In addition to these material items, we need to have available the best, most up-to-date and timely education – both classroom and practical skill stations – welded to real-world scenario-based education. ‘Fight as you train, train as you fight!’
- And along with this world-class knowledge base, the team should be led by people who have the skills, abilities, knowledge, education and experience to lead those people well. As part of this process, we need to incorporate the ability to self-critique and evaluate after each and every incident and constantly strive to be better and improve upon our response to each incident.
In a common-sense approach to how hybrid and electric systems work, basically we are dealing with a kinetic energy recovery system. The cars start with a charged high-voltage (HV) battery and during the race, as energy is used from the HV system, energy is also ‘recovered’ by braking and slowing of the car, thus charging the HV battery. The system uses a fused breaker system when the HV system detects a ‘fluctuation’ or drop in voltage, amperage, or both and the system shuts down at the battery, thus no power flows out into the cables, inverter, or motor.
The thrust of this article is to draw focus upon the concerns faced by marshals and, more importantly, emergency services, be it fire and rescue or medical. Most people, including the casual fans and observers, will point out that since the vehicles have a HV system there is a great hazard of electrocution. That cannot be further from the truth. Besides the fact that vehicles carry external dummy lights to signify if the vehicle is OK to approach or not based upon the status of the HV system, that same system has multiple redundancies to ensure the vehicle doesn’t become energized.
Just like its passenger vehicle counterpart – in theory and in practice – in a crash, the HV drive system shuts down at the HV battery pack and does not release power into the cables and inverter and motor. So, for all crashes, except those that involve either: a) fire or b) damage to the HV battery/power pack where actual cells might be exposed, the emergency service personnel can wear what their counterparts wear for personal protective envelope for motor vehicle crashes.
Fires and an open HV battery pack present other hazards, and we need to increase certain layers of our protective envelope. Even space-making/extrication evolutions – that’s disencarceration for those of you in a small part of the world – will need respiratory protection today due to the dust and particles given off by the vehicle materials, especially those of carbon fibre and carbon-reinforced plastics.
This is especially important depending upon the type of tools being used. Power hydraulic rescue tools tend to produce and leave behind strands and chunks of material. Reciprocating saws produce fine powdery dust that while appearing benign is highly toxic, carcinogenic and abrasive. So even with crashed vehicles that have a scattering of debris, all debris including those of composites should be considered hot and sharp and placed in a metal container.
The concern with a breached HV battery pack is dependent upon the type of cells that make up the battery. Lithium-Ion cells are the most difficult to manage. Damaged Lithium-Ion cells tend to go into thermal runaway (fire) even if they were on fire and were extinguished on scene. Also, vehicles have other batteries that perform other roles in addition to the HV drivetrain battery. While not having the power concerns of the HV drivetrain battery, these auxiliary batteries can present a fire hazard.
The thrust of this article is the approaching widespread use of hybrid and electric drivetrains in motorsports and today’s take on PPE for motorsport responders. It is already here in open-wheel F1 and its own series Formula E, which has been very successful. It is also in WEC and soon will be in the British Touring Car Championship. Soon, you will also see a class in World RX and World Rally Championship and Rallying, which has already seen hybrids, here and there, at national levels. Extreme E will join the Rally Raid arena in 2021. All these vehicles are not problematic nor should dealing with them be either. What is required is timely, correct information regarding potential hazards these vehicles could contain or become when crashed.
The proper equipment to manage and mitigate incidents should be in place and not begged for or borrowed. Our protective envelope should be all encompassing, including eyes, ears and respiratory protection, as well as a proper helmet that meets appropriate standards. Gloves that not only fit the protective envelope but the role and responsibility of the responder are needed as well. If they need to be layered, that’s OK! Respiratory projection, in reality, needs to be there for anyone that comes in close contact with the drivers/crew and the vehicle but especially for the firefighters and the rescue technicians performing space-making evolutions.
That just opened the circle much wider. Our education should be world class and be constantly improved upon. It should be readily available to small and large venues equally without compromise. We should never need to say, ‘this happened because their lack of training let them down.’
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