Early this morning, the Fremantle Highway, a large cargo ship, caught fire in the North Sea, off the coast of Ameland in the Netherlands. The fire has killed one person on board and injured several more, though all 23 crew members have at this point been evacuated from the ship.
The cargo ship was carrying 2,832 gas-powered cars, complete with a large amount of volatile energy stored in their gas tanks, and 25 electric ones, from Germany to Egypt. Naturally, the media seems to have taken one statement from the Dutch Coast Guard and misinterpreted it, jumping to exactly the premature conclusion that you probably did when you saw this headline pop up on our site.
early article about the cargo ship fire quoted Lea Versteeg, a spokesperson for the Dutch Coast Guard, as having made this statement over the phone:
It’s carrying cars, 2,857, of which 25 are electrical cars, which made the fire even more difficult. It’s not easy to keep that kind of fire under control and even in such a vessel it’s not easy.
We’re not sure who made the phone call, but since it’s in the Associated Press article, we suspect they might be the first who got this statement directly from Versteeg’s mouth.
NOS, the Dutch public broadcaster, cites a “Coast Guard spokesperson” as saying that presumably the fire was started by an EV. But unlike AP, NOS does not name the spokesperson nor does it have a direct quote from said spokesperson. So we really don’t know whether NOS talked to a spokesperson, or is cribbing from the Versteeg quote above – and changing its meaning in the process.
Reuters echoed NOS’s statement in its original article on the fire, but in a more recent article, it has now walked that back, stating “the coastguard said on its website that the cause of the fire was unknown, but a coastguard spokesperson had
earlier told Reuters it began near an electric car” (emphasis ours).
But what the Versteeg quote above seems to mean is that in a ship full of vehicles, each of which is carrying their own at least partially full energy storage container (whether that be a gas tank or a battery), it’s going to be hard to put out a fire because there is a lot of fuel available for that fire. Further, given that there is a mix of fuels, it’s hard to pick a single tactic to put all of them out at once, because firefighting methods are different for different types of fires.
What the quote clearly
doesn’t mean is that the Coast Guard is blaming this fire on an electric car.
And how do we know that? Well,
we called them and asked them. And they told us that, no, they have not made a statement to that effect, because they don’t know the cause of the fire yet, and that this seems to be speculation in the media.
We also checked the Dutch Coast Guard’s
liveblog about the firefighting efforts, and their Twitter page, and neither said anything about electric cars. In fact, the liveblog has now been updated to say, “The cause of the fire is still unknown.” And it makes sense that the Coast Guard would not know yet what the source of the fire is, and it would be unprofessional of them to say so, given that the fire isn’t even contained yet.
we must conclude that this is being misreported. An official statement in writing says the cause is unknown. There is nothing from officials in writing mentioning the speculation about electric cars. We don’t have a direct quote, and we don’t have a name for the spokesman who said it. The misreported information seems like it could have come from a misinterpretation of a direct quote that we do know of, and at least one of the sources has now walked it back. It was confirmed to us over the phone that the Coast Guard has not come to this conclusion and that this is all media speculation.
One thing we do know is that
cargo ship fires are not uncommon, with hundreds happening last year. We also know that another cargo ship carrying ~1,200 gas cars (and zero electric) caught fire earlier this month in New Jersey, killing two. And we know that gasoline is literally supposed to combust, that’s its entire purpose, and it does, commonly, since gas cars are several times more likely to catch fire than EVs are.
And yet, you probably have a strong association in your subconscious between fires and electric cars.
This association is why events like the aforementioned reporting on the 1,200-car ship had to specifically mention that “there were no electric cars on board.” Because the last time a ship made headlines for burning, it was one that
had a lot of electric cars on board (and notably also several gas-powered Lamborghini Aventadors, which have been recalled for fires). And despite burning ships being a not-uncommon event, this one made so many headlines precisely because of the nature of the electric cars on board.
That event also had several early reports laying blame on said electric cars, but that was
also early speculation, by media, never by official authorities, and the cause of that fire is still unclear to this day. But the association remains.
There is a concept in journalism that is summarized as “
Man Bites Dog.” The saying goes that you would never report on a dog biting a man, because that’s a common occurrence, but if a man bites a dog, well, that’s interesting and rare, so that belongs in the paper.
What this means is that news tends to magnify rare events, and de-emphasize common ones. And in our media-saturated landscape, where everyone is constantly being bombarded by headlines that they don’t have the time or inclination to analyze (thank you to the ~.1% of people who saw the headline and actually clicked and read through to this sentence), this leads people to have a warped view of the commonality of certain events.
Unfortunately, in writing this article, we have become part of the problem. By posting about fires in an electric vehicle publication, we have created an association in the minds of anyone who sees this headline between electric cars and fires.
Which is why persistent associations like these are so hard to shake. Even the debunking itself can reinforce the association, through a concept known as the “
Unfortunately, there is no single magic bullet to combat this. What we can do is encourage people to be critical but not cynical about the information you read, check several sources (that preferably do not look like they’re all cribbing from the same single statement), try to avoid sources that are clearly tabloids or have a clear ideological bias (e.g.,
Daily Mail, a climate denying publication, which wrongly put EVs in its headline on this story), and try to maintain perspective, especially when encountering purported problems with new technologies. (That is, if people bring up a problem with something new, does that problem also exist with the old thing it’s replacing? Have you merely accepted the devil you know, and are afraid of the devil you don’t know?)
And that goes double for journalists. This is your job, that phone call took all of a minute of my time to clear that up. The tweet was another couple minutes to find because I had to search in Dutch. The liveblog was a few minutes because it’s slammed with more traffic than the Dutch Coast Guard usually has to deal with.
None of this took longer than the amount of time it takes to write an article… but it did take longer than it takes to react with a 140-character quip via tweet. And thus, the
lie travels halfway around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes.
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