Gridlock Guy: The electric vehicle acid test

A hybrid caught fire and burned through the sound barrier in the I-75 Peach Pass Express Lanes in Marietta on Monday, September 18th, 2023. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

Credit: Doug Turnbull / WSB Skycopter

Credit: Doug Turnbull / WSB Skycopter

A hybrid caught fire and burned through the sound barrier in the I-75 Peach Pass Express Lanes in Marietta on Monday, September 18th, 2023. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

We have an autooooo flambé!

I could hear the late Captain Herb Emory’s voice in my head as we arrived in the WSB Skycopter above a flaming SUV in the Peach Pass Express Lanes next to I-75.

The reversible toll lanes were pointed northbound to aid the PM commute. The vehicle became engulfed and soon burned through the left side sound barrier, keeping the toll lanes closed into the night. I-75 saw onlooker delays in both directions, but it soon improved after Cobb FD doused the fire.

But that took a while.

Nick Danz, Cobb FD’s Public Information Officer, said that fires in the toll lanes present several challenges.

For one, he explained, the Peach Pass lanes are elevated and there are limited entry points. And there are no water sources close by, Danz said, so a Cobb firetruck had to park in the right lane of I-75/southbound and another had to block nearby Franklin Gateway and hook up to a hydrant.

As we looked from above, Alex Sprecher (pilot), John Sibley (videographer), and I each wondered if the burning truck was an EV. We saw burning fluid outside of the car and constant sparking and reignitions.

GDOT confirmed to me the next day that the SUV indeed was a hybrid, operating on both fossil fuel and a battery.

“That explains why our firefighters were dealing with flammable liquid spilling from one side of the car and the reigniting fire within it,” Danz said. “EV battery fires are challenging, because the battery is on fire inside the car and getting the proper suppressant into those tight spaces is difficult.”

But EV sales are up in Georgia and so is investment in the burgeoning industry.

Carvana’s Justin Levanger, the reconditioning manager at the online car seller’s Winder facility, said that his company has seen EV sales increase by 786% in the last five years. They sell 46 different makes and models of these vehicle-types, led by the moderately priced Tesla 3 and Nissan Leaf, he said.

“Typically, EVs command a higher price, because you are paying for newer technology. Some have the cutting edge of automotive technology, as it is right now,” Levanger explained.

But, he said, the maintenance and repair costs over the life of those vehicles is about $4,500 on average, or roughly half the cost of a normal combustion vehicle, he said.

Asked about the maintenance of EVs, Levanger said that they need routine checks just like any vehicle. And while they have fewer moving parts and fluids, they still use hydraulic fluid in the braking systems and what Levanger called a “form of motor oil” for the electric motors.

Drivers cannot just set and forget these cutting-edge cars.

Levanger also said that if drivers do not get the battery-cooling fluid checked and topped off, then the overheated batteries can break down and even cause fires.

But while maintenance is key, Levanger said he believes the number one reason for EV fires is impact. If an EV hits something and somehow penetrates the battery chamber, the acid can ignite.

We do not know the exact cause of the recent EV fire in Cobb. But fires of this nature are creating more complex situations for firefighters in places like Georgia, where EVs are proliferating as fast as trendy mixed-use developments.

Levanger, who spoke with the AJC and 95.5 WSB on the eve of National Drive Electric Week, says that our home state is undoubtedly becoming an EV hub.

The state legislature has radically changed how EVs will be regulated as the industry grows here. Kia, Hyundai, and Rivian are constructing new plants or expanding current facilities to crank out more of these cars. SK Innovation is building a major battery facility in Jackson County.

Local fire departments will have to evolve with the times. The National Fire Protection Association provides training for first responders who will inevitably face what they call AFVs — alternative fuel vehicles. They also offer free training videos for those in the industry.

The lists of pros and cons for EV ownership are long, and we will get deeper into those in another column. One factor we saw on full display in the Peach Pass Lanes along I-75 in Cobb County is undeniably true: fighting EV fires is more challenging. And EV owners have a lot of say in the likelihood their auto causes a conflagration.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at