Vehicle Fires

Exponent engineers provide a wide range of services associated with the investigation and prevention of fires associated with automobiles, motorcycles, buses, heavy trucks, recreational vehicles, and heavy equipment. Using Exponent's 147-acre Test and Engineering Center in Phoenix, Arizona, our engineers have the resources to fabricate customized test fixtures and can conduct both large, complex, full-scale tests as well as laboratory based bench-scale tests using state-of-the-art instrumentation. Exponent engineers currently serve on a number of organizations associated with motor vehicle fire safety, including the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Fire Safety Committee and the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) Technical Committee responsible for NFPA 1192-Recreational Vehicles. We frequently work closely with our accident reconstruction specialists investigating complex accident sequences involving motor vehicle fires. Information associated with the physical cause of burn injuries is also often used as part of the fire investigation.

Exponent engineers can offer a wide range of capabilities and services associated with the investigation of motor vehicle fires.  These services include:


  • Fire origin determination, including:
    • Origin within the vehicle
    • Origin within a structure (i.e., garage) containing a vehicle
  • Cause determination, including the role of:
    • Collision induced damage and its part in creating an ignition or fuel source
    • Aftermarket equipment and electronics
    • Operator actions
    • Operating environment, conditions, or road hazards
    • Failed mechanical or electrical components
    • Component design
    • Maintenance
    • Arson
  • Post fire initiation investigation, including:
    • Flame spread and propagation
    • Release and transport of heat, fumes, and smoke
    • Response of fire department and other emergency responders
    • Evacuation of occupants
  • Fire modeling
  • Statistical analysis of fire events
  • State-of-the-art instrumentation and data acquisition capabilities 
  • Testing:
    • Ignition testing
    • Full-scale motor vehicle burn testing
    • Operational road testing
    • Customized component testing of sub-assemblies such as the fuel system
    • Compliance testing (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards [FMVSS] 301 [fuel system integrity] and 302 [flammability of interior materials]

Exponent also has extensive capabilities to analyze key evidence collected from the fire scene. These capabilities allow our engineers to gain valuable information regarding the sequence of events leading up to and following motor vehicle fires. These capabilities include:

  • Metallurgical examination of fire debris, including beading and alloying on electrical conductors
  • Optical Microscope
  • Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)
  • Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS)
  • X-ray analysis of components
  • Chemical analysis of fire debris to determine:
  • Chemical make-up of components in the fire debris
  • Presence of accelerants in the fire debris
  • Fire origin determination, including:
    • Origin within the vehicle
    • Origin within a structure (i.e., garage) containing a vehicle

Professionals