Lerner posing in front of the BMW X5 during a rear seat belt test in 2019.
Interview with William S. Lerner
Automobiles are evolving, and to address this evolution, there is a need for adaptation to enhance safety. Various types of electric powertrain models, such as battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, hybrids, and hydrogen electric vehicles, are becoming more prevalent. While traditional internal combustion engines can be extinguished and towed after opening the hood in the event of a fire, responding to accidents involving electric vehicles (EVs) requires a nuanced understanding. I recently spoke with William S. Lerner, an American risk mitigation consultant who holds a patent for responding to accidents in the era of eco-friendly cars. His focus is on providing accurate information to rescue teams and the public. The essence of his work can be summarized as 'reducing the risk of electric vehicle accidents through identification.'
Written by Han
William S. Lerner is a Risk Mitigation Consultant specializing in safety concerns within the transportation sector, encompassing fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen stations, battery electric vehicles, electric vehicle charging, fueling, and infrastructure. He is also an independent inventor and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (F.R.S.A. Manufactures and Commerce). With 16 U.S. patents to his name and additional pending applications, he continues to broaden his portfolio in the fields of transportation and safety.
We are moving into a whole new transportation horizon concerning EVs, hybrids, diesel hybrids and, hydrogen combustion engines. Gaseous and liquid hydrogen have very different properties as do different kinds of batteries like lithium-ion, sodium-ion, and solid state. There are now hydrogen / electric buses in many cities.
Is the patent just about unplanned events?
Lerner No, this patent is not just for unplanned events. It is not just about a fire, failure or gathering information after an accident or incident. It is about identification. New electric models are constantly being introduced. It is hard to keep up with the new makes, models, and different propulsion types. One model has five different powertrains available.
We have moved to a “boxes and bubbles'' design culture. Badging of the vehicles and propulsion types are disappearing or being minimized. For example, the 2024 BMW 5 Series has no side badging and the new 7 Series, has the largest BMW roundel I have ever seen on the trunk while the “760i” or other badging is becoming smaller. The patent provides information about the vehicle, even when the vehicle is performing perfectly, and there is no danger. Pure EV’s, hybrids, gasoline, and hydrogen, have different propulsions but they may also have bodies with carbon reinforced plastics or carbon fiber cores, like one of my cars. But you don’t know it unless you open the door and see “Carbon Core.” Carbon fiber produces its own set of complications during a rescue. This is not a problem; it just requires a different way to deal with the materials.
Think about it this way: We are comfortable having a warming fire in the winter. It is wood and it vents upward. However, now think about all the new materials and battery types burning in that same space. It is a very different event, and we don't have all the toxic emissions, health issues and data figured out yet.
If there is a structural fire in a home, garage, or parking lot, it may spread to the other vehicles. The "size up" plan is to get the more modern cars, with non-traditional propulsion types and more advanced body panels out first. A 20-year-old gasoline vehicle, with a steel body is a different rescue than an EV with many high tech composite panels.
For an EV, you must be concerned with shutting down the high and / or low voltage, locating and cutting the “cut loops” to power down the EV. The ‘’cut loops” are not in any standardized location. And unlike traditional vehicles, the entire bottom of an EV can be the battery. You don’t suppress it by opening the hood. When a battery is on fire, all you hope for is to control, and contain the fire, so it does not spread to other combustibles. You never ‘’put out” a battery fire. Additionally, A 20-year-old vehicle would have one lead acid battery, whereas a new battery vehicle may have a battery that takes up most of the underside of the vehicle, and an additional lead acid or lithium-ion battery in the trunk, or frontal area.
Lerner is training a rescue team and collaborating with a toxic discharger. He observed a Tesla vehicle on a tow truck reigniting, emitting a column of toxic emissions. This occurred shortly after Hurricane Ian struck Florida, where numerous electric vehicles were submerged in seawater. Lerner emphasizes that such incidents can happen not only in Seoul and New York but elsewhere, cautioning that the emissions are not just steam but a toxic blend of formaldehyde, metal, and soot.
Many car accidents and fires of this type have already occurred. Has anything changed in the meantime?
One manufacturer put in an aluminum battery bottom in two popular models that I call ‘’The Battery Drop.” The manufacturer thought it would help first responders deal with the battery pack on fire. Did they tell first responders? No, and they let two years go by without doing so. I deposed the Fire Chief who dealt with the first battery fire on this limited selection of a mass market vehicles that has been on the market for eleven years. Can you say that it has “The Battery Drop? No. So, it dropped 8000 hot cells that shot out 40-50 feet and dented a car in the distance and the hot cells rolled down the parking lot. Imagine being shot with a hot bullet? That is exactly what happened. It changed the way I educate first responders. No first responder should ever go under a vehicle to jack it up, and spray water. Use a nozzle on a pole and slide it under the car if you must. The QR code would identify these vehicles since the manufacturer doesn’t. And, once the vehicle is ‘’suppressed”, it may reignite at any point, meaning if a battery vehicle is on a flatbed tow truck, it could send out flames, HF, Formaldehyde and toxic cobalt, nickel, and other metallic emissions, to the operator or worse, on to a street where there are pedestrians as the vehicle is being removed. The batteries generally vent from the sides under the doors because that is where the battery is in an EV. Some hybrids also have large lithium-ion batteries located in the same position and produce the same effects on a smaller scale.
Products change, and we must adapt, to stay safe. Engine fires of the past were simple. Open the hood, suppress it with water, and then it is towed to the dealer for repair. Now, it is anything but simple. Batteries can reignite up to 28 days later, and even reignite multiple times during that period. Is this a problem, a drawback, or something to stop battery vehicle development? No. We need to understand how to suppress the event, know that in any battery vehicle fire, we need to move as far away as possible and as quickly as possible. Why? HF and toxic emissions have serious health hazards. We need to make sure it does not spread to other vehicles or infrastructure. It is more complex than a petrol engine with a lead acid battery.
Do we have accurate EV fire data?
Absolutely not. A 2023 Nissan Leaf has a 40 kWh battery while a Range Rover gasoline or diesel hybrid may have a 38.1 kWh battery. The lithium-ion batteries are roughly the same size. If the battery pack in the Range Rover fails and causes a fire the car is not categorized as an EV so it is reported as a hybrid or diesel event. We need to revise our data collection. As we move towards greater hydrogen deployment, we need to make sure our data collection is as accurate as possible. Gaseous, and liquid hydrogen events are completely different, and they each have unique challenges.
Vehicle chargers are located in multiple locations, and the QR code and related features will tell you if the car is charging or not. The PDF417 barcode information indicates where the charging port is and tells you if the car has a charging indicator. This way you instantly can check if the car is charging. You don’t want to extract it when it is plugged in and charging. We know that vehicles are 30-60% more likely to fail while charging. Arching and live electrical lines are a huge concern, and charging ports can be located on any area of the vehicle.
My motto is: “Hazard Mitigation Through Identification.” If my work can stop an event with information, assist, guide or mitigate, then I have done my job. My professional roles are to mitigate any possible events, and deal with them as effectively and safely as possible, in the shortest amount of time. Unlike fires of the past, an EV can go from inert, to having the HF vapor cloud released from the sides to a full fire that shoots out flames from the vehicle in a matter of minutes or in the case of scooters, mopeds or “e-mobility” in as little as seven seconds. And if you look at e-bike shop fires, you will see 50-300 of the bikes that were destroyed, along with the shop and building above. Did all 50-300 bikes magically ignite at the same time? No, one started the event, and it spread rapidly.
Lerner’s QR Code (QR Code, Indicator light, wireless alert, acoustical alert to identify battery, gasoline, diesel, hybrid or hydrogen vehicles. Patent Number: 11,760,258. Issue date: September 19th, 2023.)
Your patent uses a QR code to transmit information about the vehicle. Tell us more about that.
The barcode or QR code is vital, the rest of the patent builds on that. Ideally you want to see it in the day and night or in a low light or smoky environment, so it can be backlit. The color? Whatever the public, first responders or automakers want. Blinking, strobing, your choice. Want an acoustical alert? it is covered. RFID or EZ Pass transponder? Covered. It is what I call a fundamental or platform patent. Everyone can form their own system that works for them. Don’t want to see it? No problem. It is a black QR code that is invisible in the exterior B-Post of the car, that lights up when it needs to.
The QR Code can be completely invisible when viewing a vehicle. How? The QR code can be located on the bottom portion of the external rear view mirrors. This way, the code can be scanned as you are closer to the vehicle from below, and the visual indicator can flash or be a solid green and flash, lighting up the ground and side of the vehicle, letting you know the QR code is there.
I prefer having the QR code in multiple locations. Meaning what if the car is parked against a wall? The area between the front side window on the door and the rear door. You will never know it is there. Most accidents are front to rear and even if it is a side hit it will be visible if mounted high. Placing it on the shark’s fin gives you 360% coverage at the top of the vehicle. You get stuck in a snow and ice storm and slide off the road? You are fine, the car is fine, but the visual indicator comes on, and then there is bright path lighting to illuminate the entire area. And, if you exit the vehicle after sliding off the road, you certainly want to see the ice around the car, so you don’t wind up on your backside. The first responders can see the car with the FAA Drone light for example, (which cost $12.25 for the 3.7 Statute Mile versions) away.
Lerner intentionally left the vehicle type unclear in the photo. First responders may not immediately identify the vehicle, but the lighting provides cues on whether it is powered by a battery, hybrid, gasoline, or hydrogen.
Oh! We can really respond from afar!
The first responders know from a great distance and can prepare for an EV event, which requires more time and water to suppress the event. As they get closer, say 70 feet or so, they simply scan the QR code and get all the information they need. Some cars don’t like to be towed. Some require a flatbed. Some cars you can go through the trunk for a rescue (tunneling), some you can’t. Information leads to best practices. The machine-readable code, QR code is the manual, 100% accurate with five pages or more of vital data, and a link to take you directly to the full ERG (Emergency Response Guide). The QR code can also take you directly to the manufacturer's portal which gives you up to the minute information about the car. Meaning, did the battery get replaced with something different than the original? And, in Tesla's Model S variants, does it have the aluminum battery bottom that drops the battery to the ground or the standard battery?
Because the illumination has the potential to be seen for miles, in a remote area, a report of a car with flashing green lights in an odd pattern, means it is a battery vehicle. First responders can plan for an event miles away. They know it is a battery car, but when they get closer, they know exactly what it is. It buys time and gets everyone prepared. The light leads you to the QR code, the foundation of the work. An acoustical alert would do the same. The light on the shark’s fin can be seen by drones or robotics, which I am a huge fan of. It is a 100% accurate guide to what the vehicle is and how to deal with it when responding via the QR code, and the illumination leads you directly to the information.
Is early response to electric vehicle fires impossible with communications such as telematics, v2x?
While Telematics and V2V seem promising, they are not being used to detect, or inform first responders, infrastructure or the public about battery or hybrid vehicle fires.Telematics are used to communicate in limited ways, such as: remotely locking or unlocking a vehicle, remote starting a vehicle, or geofencing for example. They do not detect HF which is often the first sign of a battery failure, or detect a fire. Additionally, during a fire, the telematics may not function due to melting wires or components. HF sensors used by first responders are not yet as sophisticated, widely available, and are not as accurate as they may be in the future due to varying amounts of what is emitted (formaldehyde, cobalt metallic particles, etc.) and airflow issues. A failing battery pack is usually so well insulated that you don't have an idea about it's internal failure (even if you use a thermal imaging camera) which may lead to a violent fire in a matter of seconds. V2V communications, while promising, are not in use as planned due to 6G and IoT roll out issues and lack of development. Since vehicles are not equipped with accurate HF sensors, flame detection sensors or thermal imaging cameras, this is not possible even if 6G and IoT were state of the art. Additional V2V issues, such as privacy issues, are complicated, nor would it be possible to have ''sniffer" vehicles equipped with thermal imaging cameras, flame detection sensors, HF sensors or the like. Manufacturers do not want to highlight the potential dangers from a lithium-ion battery in an electric vehicle, or a hybrid vehicle. So, a vehicle fire is detected when it happens by those in the area or monitoring the garage or tunnel, who report it to responders.
There is a lot of chatter about battery dangers, hydrogen dangers, EV dangers, e-mobility dangers, so are you pointing out the flaws, and going against the advancement of new propulsion types or combinations thereof?
Absolutely not. I am an inventor. I applaud every battery vehicle company, every hydrogen vehicle company, every battery maker and engine maker. Cummins is working on their hydrogen combustion engine. We have a hydrogen powered ferry in San Francisco (yes, the patent covers boats and ships). We may see more e-fuels, fleet retrofitting, and really interesting variations. Toyota has a liquid hydrogen powered race car (and liquid hydrogen vs gaseous hydrogen are very different).
My work revolves around first responders. I am responsible for creating training guidelines, and as an advisor to a state training academy, and my role is to inform and educate. I look for emerging trends, patterns and anomalies. A horizontal colleague in the UK told me about double decker buses with battery packs between the two decks. Interesting. However, first responders need to know that in a rescue or event.
Clearly, I focus on firetrucks. Rosenbaur’s latest and greatest truck is the RTX. When I read the specs for the first time, I actually yelped “Brilliant!!!!” All wheel drive, with a dual electric motor, two Volvo Penta batteries. and now for the genius part, a 3.0 liter 300 HP 6 Cylinder BMW clean diesel engine. Simply brilliant from a first responder perspective. You don’t want to run out of battery power when pumping water, or not have enough power to return to the firehouse. The BMW engine is used as a perpetual range extender as needed. They even put a battery pack in the traditional place, in the lower part between the rear wheels, and a vertical battery pack in the body of the truck. An upside-down T, so it is really unique. Hydrogen vehicles and trucks have very unique properties which few know about (hydrogen and EV issues are my dual focus because people think it is one or the other, it is not).
Hydrogen is found with battery packs on the top of the most popular ‘’hydrogen” bus. They two interact and interact in unique ways and present a unique set of challenges due to the combination of lithium-ion and hydrogen in a confined space.
Concerning a hydrogen vehicle or truck, what is absolutely unique, and gives the designer and maker flexibility that is not found in a gasoline vehicle or battery vehicle? Hydrogen does not like to be stored in square or rectangular places like batteries. It likes cylinders. So, if a car is modular like the new BMW 7 Series, the bottom of the car is rectangular for the traditional battery pack. If you fill it with rounded cylinders, which include rounded tops and bottoms, you have wasted space. Hydrogen’s magic trick to compensate? It has no problem having smaller tanks anywhere where you would find dead space that is not being used. It does not lose any efficiency by being split up. Honda had hydrogen tanks under the rear seat, some in the trunk, and Nikola stacks them up like beer barrels behind the cab, with a big battery where the traditional saddle bag diesel tank used to be.
The importance of vehicle information seems to be higher after hearing about the battery-hydrogen vehicle!
Never before, has the transportation segment (which includes the US Military phasing in alternative vehicles in their roadmap) been more exciting and dynamic. Adding to that, is the fact many cities have zero emissions mandates for fleet or governmental vehicles, some as soon as 2025 for entire fleets. We are at the beginning of a propulsion revolution. Who knows what the dominant propulsion types will be. We may have 25 variations that are all fantastic. My point is that they are all different, and will be different, so we must give the exact information to the first responders as needed. Knowing it is just a battery vehicle or hybrid is not what is vital. What is vital is the make, year, battery type, size of the battery (40 kWh Nissan Leaf or 129 kWh Ram Electric), composition of the battery (lithium-ion, sodium-ion or solid state in the future) rescue data, high voltage disconnects, low voltage disconnects, VIN etc.
So, in summary, my patent provides a way to give precise information to first responders and the public:
The exact make, model, propulsion type or types, “Cut Loop” location, charger location, battery size, rescue data, and other vital information is provided to the first responder from up to 70 feet away, that is 100% accurate.
From a great distance, they can tell if it is a battery or gasoline vehicle. This gives them time to set up and prepare. Meaning if it is a multi-car accident involving three EVs, they will need additional water, and time. Layered on top of the simple QR code (embedded in the darkened or dotted area above the interior rear view mirror) you have the option for illumination, that indicates that it is a battery vehicle (green or any other color), an acoustical element to get attention or warn those in the area to move away, path lighting, wireless communication of the event to a garage, remote vehicle monitoring location, notification of a failure in the cabin, sent to your smartwatch, phone of tablet, and the ability to be scanned when entering a tunnel or garage or to have the vehicle’s identification scanned or read like an EZ Pass. In the tunnel, the lights would ideally be at the top of the vehicle and the sides, which would project downwards and to the ceiling of the tunnel. This way first responders can scan a tunnel and know exactly what they are facing for a rescue. And, if the vehicle is scanned via the QR code or ‘’read” by the transponder, they will know the exact location of each vehicle in the tunnel.
Patents offer a means to deliver precise information to rescue teams and the public. Details such as the exact make, model, powertrain type, cut loop location, charger location, battery capacity, rescue data, and other critical information are provided with 100% accuracy to rescuers up to 70 feet away.
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