Q

Can cars explode?

A

Cars don’t really explode, especially not the way they do in the movies. However, a car catching on fire is a serious possibility. Comprehensive coverage will pay to repair or replace your car if it catches fire.

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By

Rachael Brennan

Rachael Brennan

Property and Casualty Insurance Expert

Rachael Brennan is a senior insurance editor at Policygenius, specializing in auto insurance. She worked for 21st Century Insurance, BlueCross BlueShield Massachusetts, and HealthPass New York. She also spent two years working as a content expert for dozens of auto insurance websites through 360Quote LLC.

Published November 9, 2021|4 min read

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We’ve all seen movies where a car plunges off a cliff, crashes into a building, or drives off a bridge before exploding into a ball of fire. It makes for great movie visuals, but is it possible for cars to explode like that? The answer is not really.

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While it is technically possible (the internet is full of stories about the infamous Ford Pinto) the truth of the matter is that car explosions are exceedingly rare. Cars can, however, catch on fire, and comprehensive insurance provides coverage.

Key Takeaways

  • Cars are unlikely to explode, but mechanical failures, malfunctions, collisions, and rollovers are all things that can cause a car to catch fire

  • If you are driving an electric car, lithium-ion batteries that are exposed to extreme heat or have a manufacturing defect could potentially explode, but this is very rare

  • There are some common signs that your car is going to catch fire, including sparks, leaking oil, fuel, or other flammable liquids, dysfunctional electrical system, smoke from the engine, and overheating exhaust/engine systems

  • If your car catches fire, your comprehensive coverage will pay to repair or replace your vehicle

Can cars explode like in the movies?

No, cars are extremely unlikely to explode the way they do in action movies. There are really only two situations where your car might explode:

  1. You are carrying something explosive, such as a propane tank, that is triggered by an outside force. If your car catches fire while carrying a propane tank, you might be in danger of an explosion.

  2. Your car has been rigged with an explosive device like a bomb or a land mine. Unless you live in the “Mission Impossible” franchise, the odds are good that this will never be a situation you need to worry about.

The more likely scenario is that your car might catch fire in an accident. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 212,500 vehicle fires in 2018, which sounds scary, but this number has actually gone down over time. 

For reference, in 1980 there were approximately 456,000 vehicle fires, which means the number of fires in vehicles has dropped by more than half over the last 40 years. If your car does catch fire, your comprehensive coverage would pay to repair or replace your vehicle.

What causes a car to catch on fire?

The most common reason a car might catch on fire is mechanical failure or malfunction or an electrical failure or malfunction. Cars can also catch fire during a collision, rollover, or due to a purposeful action, like arson.

Accidental vehicle fires are more common in large trucks and buses than smaller passenger vehicles and are much more likely to occur on highways than other locations.

How do you know if your car is going to explode?

While your car isn’t likely to explode, there are some warning signs that your car is going to catch fire, including:

  • Sparks

  • Leaking oil, fuel, or other flammable liquids

  • A loose or blown fuse

  • Dysfunctional electrical system

  • Smoke from the engine

  • Rapid changes in fuel or fluid levels

  • Overheating exhaust/engine temperature

If you notice any of these signs you should immediately pull over, turn off your vehicle, get everyone out of the car, and call for help. If there isn’t an active fire you might be able to call roadside assistance to have your car towed for repairs, but if you see smoke or fire you’ll want to call 911 right away.

Can electric vehicles explode?

The lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles can explode in very specific circumstances, but this is not common. Lithium-ion batteries are used in almost every portable electric device, from electric cars and airplanes to laptops and cell phones. Almost everyone in the country uses multiple devices with lithium-ion batteries every day and is in no danger of an explosion.

However, when lithium-ion batteries are exposed to extreme heat or have a manufacturing defect, the possibility exists that the battery could explode. 

If your electric car catches fire and the battery is exposed to that heat, it increases the likelihood of explosion. If there is damage to your electric car battery, insurance could help pay to repair or replace it.

Will car insurance cover it if my car explodes?

If you have comprehensive insurance, you will be covered if your car explodes or catches fire. Comprehensive coverage, which is sometimes called “other than collision” insurance, pays for damage to your car that was not caused by a collision, including damage from:

  • Fire

  • Theft

  • Falling objects (rocks, tree limbs, etc.)

  • Vandalism, riots, explosions, etc.

  • Storm damage (hail, wind, floods, earthquakes, etc.)

  • Animal-related damage (hitting a deer, etc.)

  • Windshield and glass damage

Comprehensive insurance is sold as part of a full coverage policy. There is no such thing as an insurance policy that covers every possible issue, but full coverage includes liability, comprehensive, and collision coverage, providing coverage for damage you cause to other people in an at-fault accident as well as damage to your own vehicle.

→ Learn more about full coverage insurance

Will my car blow up if I leave it on while pumping gas?

Gas stations often have signs posted, explaining that customers should not:

  • Leave their vehicle running while pumping gas

  • Smoke cigarettes while pumping gas

  • Get into or out of their car while pumping gas

Why do they have these signs? Because of the gas vapor that is present while refueling your vehicle.

Gasoline itself isn’t flammable, it is combustible. This means that, in liquid form, gasoline doesn’t catch fire. It does, however, turn into vapor very easily. The combustion from this gas vapor is what powers your car.

Because gasoline turns to vapor so easily, a single spark is all it takes to cause an explosion. This could come from an obvious source, like a lit cigarette or a running engine, or it could come from a less obvious source, like static electricity discharging from your finger to the gas pump. 

This is why they don’t want you to get into or out of your vehicle at the gas station—the friction between you and the seat of your car can be enough to build up a static charge.

While it is certainly possible to do all of these things without causing an explosion, the risk is real and it isn’t worth the possibility of causing a fire or explosion at the gas station, so turn off your car and put out that cigarette before you start pumping gas.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can cars explode from overheating?

While it won’t cause an explosion, overheating can absolutely cause your car to catch fire. If you notice your heat gauge edging up into the red it is important to have your car checked by a mechanic as soon as possible.

Can cars explode from impact?

It is technically possible, though exceedingly rare, for a car to explode on impact. This would require just the right set of circumstances, referred to as B.L.E.V.E., which stands for Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. When something containing pressurized liquid raises above its boiling point and puts enormous amounts of pressure on its container, exposure to an outside spark could cause it to explode. This is very unlikely to happen in a car accident and it is much more likely that a car will catch fire on impact rather than explode.

Will my car blow up if I don’t get an oil change?

Oil is what keeps the moving parts in your engine in motion. If you go long enough without an oil change those parts won’t be able to move smoothly, which could cause parts of your engine to overheat. It could even cause a blown head gasket or other issues. It would not, however, cause a massive car explosion.

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