Electrical vehicle of Volkswagen as illustration (Photo by Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty Images)


Two dead after EU-funded hybrid car prototype explodes in Italy


Two researchers died after being severely injured when an EU-funded prototype hybrid electric car exploded in Naples, Italy.

The vehicle, part of the unfortunately named “Life-Save project”, was being tested in experimental research on the transformation of conventional petrol-powered cars into hybrid motors that can operate on a combination of solar energy and traditional combustion engines.

The researchers died in hospital in late June after being badly hurt in the explosion that destroyed the car a few days earlier. The two Italian victims were named as Maria Vittoria Prati, a senior researcher at Italy’s National Council of Research (CNR), and Fulvio Filace, a 25-year-old intern at the same institution.

The tests they were undertaking involved retrofitting standard production cars with extra electric motors, powered by a battery and solar panels installed on the roof and bonnet. The project had received funding from the European Commission’s LIFE Programme. However, following the accident, the website associated with the project has been deactivated.

When Brussels Signal contacted Cinea, the European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency, a representative said that while the EU had contributed close to €2 million to the project previously, its funding ended in February this year.

“The very unfortunate incident did not happen in the context of the related LIFE project”, an EU official said, further pointing out the test was conducted by CNR, an entity that was not a beneficiary of the previous project.

Expressing “great shock and sorrow” over the fatalities, the CNR said it had started an internal inquiry and was cooperating with investigators. Earlier, the CNR paid tribute to Prati as “a brilliant researcher” and “an authority in the field of the study of emissions and the use of alternative fuels”.

The funeral of Filace was held on July 1, with hundreds of mourners attending. On the evening of July 3, a torchlight procession honouring him will be held.

Observers say the accident has thrown up questions. For instance, why was the experimental car being driven on a public ring-road near the research facility in Campania, south-west Italy, and why was an intern at the wheel of the vehicle?

Italian authorities are investigating and have seized the wreckage of the modified Volkswagen Polo, along with another of the research group’s experimental vehicles, a Fiat Punto. Several people involved have already been questioned by the local public prosecutor who, in light of what appear to be ‘anomalies’, is investigating suspected double manslaughter and arson.

eProInn, a spin-off company of the University of Salerno in southern Italy that played a lead role in the Life-Save project, was working on retrofitting conventional cars with solar-hybrid powertrains, seeking to encourage drivers to switch to ‘greener’ transportation without having to pay for expensive new purpose-built hybrid cars.

Hybrid and fully electric vehicles have encountered safety issues before, including fires and explosions. They can be susceptible to problems regarding batteries that produce a high energy load, sometimes resulting in almost inextinguishable blazes.

Such incidents have apparently become more frequent, prompting some shipping companies to decline carrying electric vehicles.

A number of authorities have already responded to safety concerns associated with electric vehicles. For instance, it was reported last year that the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, a state-owned public transport operator in Paris, removed 149 electric buses from its fleet after two of them unexpectedly exploded in one month.