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Here’s What Really Happened When Rich Rebuilds’ Electric UTV ‘Caught Fire’ at SEMA

The sight of people pushing a smoking side-by-side out of the show got attention, but Rich says it wasn’t a battery fire.
UTV Side by Side SxS Fire Rich Rebuilds
screengrab via YouTube | Rich Rebuilds

Electric vehicle YouTuber Rich Beniot (better recognized by his channel name, Rich Rebuilds) is known for building some rather sweet Tesla-based projects. He’s also a huge fan of off-road vehicles, like his Sherp and a 102-MPH capable “cyberquad,” for example. When Rich decided to add yet another sweet ride to his collection, he and his team got to work turning a wrecked 2014 Polaris RZR into a battery-powered UTV for SEMA.

However, in typical Las Vegas fashion, things didn’t go exactly as planned. While at SEMA earlier this month, the UTV began to smolder, and rumors circulated on the internet as claims that the vehicle caught fire inside of the convention center began to spread.

What really happened, according to Chad Hrencecin of Electrified Garage, was a so-called “thermal event.” Essentially, it means that one of the battery packs became unstable and began self-heating. While this did pose a fire risk, the pack itself didn’t technically catch on fire like some of the other EV-based battery fires we’ve seen in the past.

The smoke seen billowing out of the UTV is actually by design. Small vents are built into the pack’s hard aluminum shell so the battery can de-gas in the event of a cell compromise. This venting process prevents the battery from reaching combustible temperatures and reduces the risk of a fire.

When Rich and his team noticed that the UTV had begun to smoke, the group pushed the side-by-side out of the convention center and called the fire department who arrived for support if needed. The UTV continued to de-gas for more than an hour, though the lack of flames was truly the best worst-case scenario.

The channel’s co-host, Steven Salowsky, told The Drive that the cause of the problem was actually an out-of-spec screw. The screw caused a direct short from a wiring harness to temperature hardware and was ultimately responsible for the thermal event. Fortunately, it was an easy fix. The team replaced the hardware and bad pack. The UTV was back up and running almost immediately.

Ironically, this wasn’t the only fire at SEMA. The day before, an LS-swapped Chevrolet C10 pickup caught fire at due to a fuel leak, only that one was a bit more lively (albeit quickly extinguished) due to the nature of gasoline. Despite EV fires being a highly reported topic, studies show that EVs are at a significantly lower risk of catching fire than combustion-powered vehicles.

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