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Interview Interview with Fabian Knecht, CEO, Autohilfe Zürich

Countless breakdowns and traffic accidents take place on Swiss roads every day.

We interviewed Fabian Knecht from Autohilfe Zürich to find out what risks are involved with electric vehicles in such instances. The work of Autohilfe Zürich includes breakdown and accident call-outs, guaranteeing immediate mobility for people’s onward journeys.

Fabian Knecht, CEO, Autohilfe Zürich

1. Perhaps you would like to briefly introduce yourself (career, experience)?

Fabian Knecht is CEO at Autohilfe Zürich AG. He started as a trained vehicle electronics technician/electronics engineer and undertook training in various other areas. These include automotive engineering, as a driving instructor and in business management. In addition to his main role, he trains fire brigades, police forces and towing services in the field of electromobility/electric vehicles and their dangers.

As electromobility is a fairly new sector for the Swiss market and there are only a few dedicated courses and qualifications, Mr Knecht has acquired much of his knowledge simply by trying things out. Reports from towing services and processes within his teams are exchanged on a regular basis to acquire new know-how and continually expand knowledge in the field of electromobility.

2. What are the (three) main differences between breakdowns of electric vehicles and vehicles with conventional drive systems?

The approach you take for a broken down electric vehicle is practically identical to a fossil fuel-driven one. There is basically no difference from the customer’s point of view. There are some features that towing personnel need to know, such as that electric vehicles must not be towed using a rope.

3. How big is the difference in costs compared to vehicles with conventional engines in the event of a breakdown?

Again, there is hardly any difference in costs at all if an electric vehicle breaks down. Vehicles are usually loaded on to a trailer by the towing service meaning the price is identical to fossil-fuel powered vehicles.

Higher costs may be incurred due to the risk of a battery fire following a serious accident or vehicle fire. The recovery, transport and storage of the electric vehicle in particular cause additional costs. However, according to Mr Knecht, only around 1-2% of all accidents involving electric-powered vehicles create these additional costs because only in these rare instances does the battery condition become critical and pose a major risk of a battery fire. In the event of a fire, the battery (e-battery) must always be classified as hazardous. If the battery was damaged by the fire, it is therefore highly recommended that the vehicle be transported securely and stored appropriately.

Breakdown assistance for fuel-based vehicles and electric vehicles costs between CHF 200 and 400 if the vehicle has to be repaired on site or towed.

Simple accident assistance – car still moves and can be steered – costs between CHF 400 and 600.

Vehicle recovery after a fire or serious traffic accident, for example, costs between CHF 600 and 1,500 (loaded by crane, vehicle no longer moves, restoring driveability etc.).

Recovery of an electric vehicle following a serious accident using secured transport and storage costs up to four times more than “regular” recovery. However, only around 1% to 2% of incidents are affected by these measures. The additional costs can be justified and detailed accordingly.

Prices can vary heavily as not each breakdown assistance call-out will take place in exactly the same way (e.g. it may be to a mountain or very secluded location).

4. Do drivers require specific expertise in the event of a breakdown (with respect to electric vehicles)?

When it comes to breakdowns, drivers do not require any extended knowledge of their electric vehicles. However, it is generally advisable that drivers familiarize themselves with their vehicles. There are general differences between electric and conventional combustion engine vehicles. Electric vehicles do not make any noise, they are much more efficient, the displays in the vehicle are different to those in conventional vehicles, etc. Drivers should know these facts when acquiring or purchasing an electric vehicle. If a breakdown occurs, it is definitely worthwhile notifying the police/fire brigade/towing service that an electric vehicle is involved.

5. How much training have breakdown service staff been given to ensure they are equipped to deal with electric vehicles? (Brands)

There are day training courses available for staff to learn about the characteristics of electric vehicles. However, the contents of these training sessions are usually basic in nature. In the event of a breakdown, two-person teams are dispatched to call-outs. These consist of one specialist (four specialists are currently available) and one general employee to ensure specialist knowledge is relayed during everyday operations. As already described in the introduction, general solutions in the event of a breakdown are discussed and continuously optimized. Hands-on learning and experience improve the efficiency of their work.

For safety reasons, work on high-voltage components can only be carried out by people who have been trained for this work. Everyone else needs to stay away from these components and all orange-coloured wires!

Critical situations can arise if the battery becomes deformed in an accident and is therefore impaired. In the worst-case scenario, the cells in the drive battery can short circuit, causing a battery fire. In this case, the drive battery catches fire and can be extinguished only with difficulty. Specialists can assess the potential risks better and more quickly on site.

6. Out of 100 broken down vehicles, how many are electric vehicles?

In the Zurich region, the estimated percentage of these vehicles is around 5-8%. Across Switzerland this value is lower.
However, the number of electric vehicles is continually growing.

7. Is there more you need to be aware of than with a combustion engine vehicle? (Risk during a fire)

A basic rule is never to approach a burning vehicle. When raising the alarm, inform the rescue services that an electric vehicle is involved. This provides emergency services with important information from the outset and different staff can be sent out than for a conventional combustion engine vehicle, if needed.

Vehicle fire:

When a vehicle catches fire, it almost always requires attendance by the fire brigade. Only in rare cases can vehicle fires be put out using resources available at hand, such as fire extinguishers. If a combustion engine vehicle catches fire, it usually takes approx. 3,000 – 4,000 litres of water to put out the fire. The deployment time is relatively short at 10 – 20 minutes and usually is not very challenging. With an electric vehicle things are quite different. If the high-voltage battery does not catch fire, it is also no great challenge. But if the battery is damaged by the fire, or even caused the fire, the situation is different. Many times more water is required to extinguish the fire (up to 16,000 litres of water, i.e. four times more than for a conventional vehicle). The deployment time for the fire brigade is also much longer than for a conventional fire As the battery is only cooled down by the water, it is not immediately extinguished. However, the fire brigades in Switzerland are very knowledgeable and alternative extinguishing agents are available to put out the fires faster. From the moment the battery burns, the vehicle is also classified as a risk vehicle in terms of recovery, transport and storage and falls under the 1% to 2% where special measures are required.

Mechanical damage to a battery (battery penetration):

If the battery is penetrated in a traffic accident, this causes an immediate fire in the battery and thus in the entire vehicle in the vast majority of cases. Mr Knecht points out, however, that electric vehicles are built very safely and that fuel (diesel or petrol) can also be immediately ignited during an accident involving conventional vehicles, causing the same result, namely a fire.

Short circuit in the battery after an accident:

If the battery is only slightly damaged after an accident (a small part in the battery causes a short circuit), for example due to impact (the battery housing is pushed in, etc.), there is a risk of delayed fire. This can take two minutes, two hours, two days or two weeks depending on its condition. This initially invisible danger should not be underestimated, but with the appropriate tools and specialist knowledge it can be assessed on site by the towing company’s professional accident assistant. At Autohilfe Zürich AG, we have several vehicles that are equipped with special devices (including a thermal imaging camera) in order to be able to detect a possible rise in temperature in the battery at an early stage and thus gain more time to take possible measures on site after an accident to alert the fire brigade immediately and to use the breakdown/accident assistance’s fire suppression system should the risk of fire be confirmed.

8. Have you experienced problems before with insurance providers after a fire or a complicated vehicle recovery?

At this point in time, there have been no problems or complications with insurers. This is due to clear transparency and structures meaning that insurance companies can understand the procedure. It is therefore important that we can prove specialist knowledge and justify our actions to avoid problematic cases with insurers.

9. How long do vehicles need to be monitored after a fire/accident?

If there is a high risk, the vehicle remains in the container, depending on the manufacturer’s instructions and the results of the measurement report (temperature monitoring). Hourly monitoring of the temperature in the battery ensures its current state can be continually monitored. This is also the factor which determines how long a vehicle needs to be monitored. It is a type of intensive care unit for the vehicle and its battery. Depending on the temperature curve, the vehicle can remain in the protected container for three to 14 days. Once the risk of a delayed fire no longer exists, the overall claim process with the insurer does not differ significantly from vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

Extinguishing system

10. Have there been cases of fires with electric vehicles that did not involve a collision?

Yes, there have been. But these also occur with combustion engines.

11. What does the breakdown/accident service do in the event of an accident?

There are three basic stages. Autohilfe Zürich AG is usually alerted to accidents by the police or an insurance company. In rare cases, customers also inform Autohilfe Zürich AG directly.

In the first stage, we have the option of retrieving all the necessary technical information from the vehicle number plate using a tool (only for Swiss and Liechtenstein-registered vehicles), which immediately provides us with details on the vehicle’s emergency shut-off mechanism, where the battery is, and other important technical information to assist with evaluation. Thanks to modern telecommunications technology, we can request images of the situation and use documentation to provide an initial assessment by telephone. In addition, information indicating that the risk of an electric shock is very low is an important resource for Mr Knecht. Nevertheless, anything that doesn’t need to be touched, should not be touched, especially all orange cables.

The Smart car as an example: the fire brigade and breakdown service can directly access this rescue card via the number plate and provide their initial findings in the telephone notification.

In the second stage and upon detection of a potential risk in stage 1 from the images or situation description received from people on site, Autohilfe Zürich AG arrives at the accident site with one of their specially equipped vehicles and more precisely assesses the potential risk. Additional measures and work steps may then become necessary depending on the on-site assessment. These include battery checks using a thermal imaging camera, retrieving information from the car’s OBD system using test devices, executing emergency system shut-offs and others. If we detect the risk of a fire, we notify the fire brigade immediately (see question 7). In the last stage, Autohilfe Zürich AG calls for a fire protection container in those critical cases where there is a high probability of a delayed risk of fire. In such cases, we would also call the fire brigade in parallel so that there is appropriate protection against any risk of fire while recovering the vehicle.

Fire suppression containers:

These special containers are equipped with the latest technology. They are used for secure transportation from the accident site and also for storage after the incident. Autohilfe Zürich AG knows where the containers are at all times and these containers are capable of extinguishing fires automatically. We are notified of the alarm immediately via a system featuring an extinguisher with special fire suppressants. In the event of a fire, the system extinguishes or suppresses it for 60 minutes and we gain crucial time to take additional measures. This is why it’s called a fire suppression system. It’s very important during transportation and provides us with time to find a suitable location to place the container. After alerting the fire brigade, the container can be flooded with water. Once the batteries are submerged in water, the risk is averted and they can cool down in the water. The containers are almost water-tight and water that escapes is captured.

12. Do reinforcements around the battery make it much safer? Does every electric vehicle have reinforced batteries?

Every electric vehicle features battery reinforcement for safety reasons. It certainly improves safety by helping prevent deformation or penetration of the battery.

It can become critical if the battery becomes deformed through an accident and thus impaired. In the worst-case scenario, the cells in the drive battery can experience a short circuit, i.e. a battery fire. The drive battery catches fire and is hard to put out.

13. What happens to an electric vehicle if you stop on the motorway? Are fines also imposed as they are for fuel-based vehicles?

If a vehicle has to be parked on the hard shoulder or in a space for breakdown vehicles due to a lack of fuel or battery capacity, a fine of CHF 120 is imposed. If a vehicle stops in a lane due to insufficient fuel or power, the court of the canton in which the breakdown took place will file a report and issue a fine. The administrative authority of the canton of residence in which the guilty driver is resident can then take further action with regard to their driving license.

14. Do many electric vehicles break down on the motorway? If yes, how many per week approximately?

Autohilfe Zürich AG has only seen three. One during the night on a journey, two in traffic jams.

In winter, more power is used by windscreen washers, heaters, etc. which has a greater impact on the range. Low temperatures are also not ideal for a battery.

15. What does the breakdown service do if a battery is flat? (Example: two weeks on holiday and the vehicle was not connected to a charging station)

In these situations, the problem is usually not the high-voltage battery but the 12V battery, which is almost identical to the batteries used in a combustion engine vehicle. If the 12V battery is flat, the system cannot be turned on and assistance needs to be provided. Nowadays this is handled using specialist devices. An electric vehicle should not be jump started with its 12V system. Using jumper cables can cause voltage peaks to occur, which can damage the electronics in a worst case scenario.

If the high-voltage battery is flat, we have the appropriate emergency power generators to charge the HV system.

If you run out of power, what does the breakdown service do?

The breakdown service arrives with an emergency power generator (a small trailer).

The breakdown service uses this device to charge the vehicle for 15 minutes after which the driver can travel to the nearest charging station. A supercharger would be beneficial as this means less time is needed.

16. Potential hazards from electric vehicles?

  1. Electrical hazard
  2. Chemical hazard
  3. Fire hazard
  4. Risk of deflagration

The individual dangers can be present at the same time or interdependently.

Example: a break in a cable is an electrical hazard, and the formation of an electric arc (short circuit) can add a fire hazard.

The battery can deform after an accident, creating a fire hazard.

The fire can bring about additional hazards (chemical hazard and deflagration). However, this is very situational and cannot be generalized.

17. How safe are electric vehicles?

Technically speaking, an electric vehicle is as safe as an aeroplane.

See the example below.

The Tesla burned out in an accident.

A combustion engine vehicle can look exactly the same as the Tesla above following a serious accident.

But it should also be mentioned that although fuel-powered vehicles can start a large fire very quickly, they can also be extinguished more quickly.

In the case of electric fires, the initial fire may not be quite so large, but it takes longer to extinguish them (detailed explanation in question 7).

18. Can you repair a nail in an electric vehicle’s tyre using a kit?

Yes, that’s not a problem. No additional aspects need to be observed when using an emergency wheel compared to a conventional vehicle. But you must adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions for each emergency wheel. The manufacturers specify the speed and number of kilometres you can drive.

19. Injection lances for battery packs – do these exist in Switzerland?

Formula E cars have a water connection, this idea was looked into. But the disadvantage of this is that if the vehicle is not yet on fire and you intervene, this automatically causes a fire. There is a risk to recovery/rescue services through using this in practice.

20. How many containers have been deployed?

The containers have been used a total of six times within two years.

50% of which were false alarms; only three of the electric vehicles truly needed a container.

Copyright for images: Autohilfe Zürich

Everyday work at Autohilfe Zürich