Imagine you’ve ordered a Porsche, unique to your preferences, specced from one of the most extensive selections of custom options available from any manufacturer. Maybe it’s a rare, very limited production model like a GT3, with only 820 slated to be produced for the US this year.
Then you hear that the ship your car is traveling on has caught fire. Yes, it’s just a car… and in these times, with all that’s going on in the world, it can seem trivial to despair about such a thing. But man, it’s still heartbreaking.
This is the situation a lot of expectant car owners found themselves in when news broke that the Felicity Ace cargo ship had caught fire at sea, somewhere in the vicinity of the Azores. The cargo ship’s capacity is the equivalent of three football fields, and it was full, carrying about 4000 cars. The cars on board were various models from Volkswagen Group manufacturers—VW, Audi, Porsche, Bentley, and Lamborghini. At a time when the automotive supply chain is still constrained at every level—not the least of which is the global chip shortage—and new car supplies were already falling woefully short of demand, a fire in transport is particularly devastating.
As of March 1, the Felicity Ace had officially sunk. That was an unexpected outcome; even if a cargo ship is completely gutted by flames, it’s almost assuredly still seaworthy. Once the fire was finally out, the Felicity Ace was being towed to a port where a salvage team could take inventory of the damage—and whatever remained of the cargo—as well as investigate the cause of the fire. Rough seas caused it to capsize, which will complicate the investigation even more.
What happens now
Many of the cars on the Felicity Ace—which was destined for Rhode Island—were customer orders, rather than orders placed by dealers for their inventory. There’s been a lot of speculation about what will happen now, given that these cars are now at the bottom of the ocean, definitively dashing all hopes—far fetched though they were—of recovery.
Further complicating things is the fact that some of these cars were limited production and nearing the end of their runs. There are rumored to have been at least a couple of Lamborghini Aventadors on the manifest, and their production ended in Fall of 2021. It makes sense for Lamborghini to replace these cars for their customers, but it may not be as simple as the manufacturer just expanding the run to rebuild the cars and make good on the orders.
The Aventador’s carbon fiber body panels are shaped by molds, and each mold can only be used a finite number of times (500, in this case). There were allegedly only 8 sets of molds made, and that dictated the end of the production. Additionally, the current supply chain delays and even unavailability of certain parts and materials remain highly constrained, and are still at crisis levels. In short, it’s going to be a mess to try to rebuild most of these cars.
Porsche has indicated that they will prioritize rebuilding the customer-ordered cars, above the others in their production queue, which will mean some delays for the rest of their orders. The other manufacturers have yet to make any statements about how they’re going to handle the situation.
For most of the affected manufacturers, cargo ships have been halted (and even already-produced cars waiting at port, delayed) until the cause of the Felicity Ace fire can be ascertained. This extra caution is no doubt a measure to minimize risk of this disaster being repeated in future shipments. The loss of one of these massive cargo ships will also exacerbate shipping delays for the affected manufacturers even once shipments resume.
EVs: fuel to the fire?
The cause of the fire is still unknown, but one element that may prove to be significant is the electric vehicles on the Felicity Ace’s manifest. There were Porsche Taycans, Volkswagen ID.4 and Audi e-trons—all-electric cars with massive lithium battery packs. For all the advantages of EVs with these power sources, there’s also a caveat: lithium batteries are extremely flammable.
In recent years, there have been numerous cases of lithium EV batteries spontaneously igniting in certain conditions. It’s not common, but it does happen, and once they do catch on fire they create conditions that would be a perfect storm in a cargo ship full of cars. Once ignited, they have a tendency to emit flammable gases that can ignite nearby batteries. They also can re-ignite, even hours after the initial fire has been extinguished.
Changes are likely
Depending on what the investigation identifies as the cause (and/or exacerbating factors that made the fire harder to put out) this incident could change the way electric cars are shipped. It may become necessary for manufacturers to ship the cars without batteries, or to move more manufacturing operations onto each continent to minimize transport distance.
Insurers and cargo ship operators may balk at these risks, going forward. And manufacturers are no doubt hesitant to do anything that increases chances of another devastating fire that lays waste to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of rare cars.
Whatever happens, the demise of the Felicity Ace is a tremendous loss for the automotive enthusiast community—particularly those with cars on the ship—because some remarkable cars were lost, and the effects on deliveries will likely have ongoing impact across the industry. At the same time, the silver lining—the safe evacuation of the entire crew—is a massive one. It’s remarkable that no one was hurt, and gratitude for that definitely outweighs the loss of the cars, no matter how magnificent some of them were.