ABC News reports on parked BMWs catching fire, but is anything there?

Fire is a serious concern, but ABC News might be pulling kindling out of thin air.

BMW

The media is occasionally guilty of sensationalizing, even when the topic is serious enough to stand on its own. A report of parked BMWs catching fire certainly seems to lean in that direction.

ABC News is currently presenting an investigation into a series of parked BMWs that have caught fire. In conjunction with local ABC-owned outlets, it discovered "more than 40" situations in which various BMW models caught fire while parked, even though the vehicles in question did not have open recalls involving fire issues.

The E70-generation X5 SUV is the only BMW mentioned specifically in ABC News' investigation. The rest are just given a year and no model designation.

BMW

When asked about the investigation, BMW said that it investigated the vehicles ABC News brought to its attention and did not find a pattern "related to quality or component failure," the company said in a statement. BMW's full statement can be found below:

With approximately 4.9 million BMW vehicles on U.S. roads, fire incidents involving BMWs are very rare. BMW takes every incident very seriously and has a dedicated team prepared to work with BMW owners, insurance companies and authorities to investigate any vehicle fire incident that is brought to our attention.

We have investigated and in some cases inspected the vehicle identified by ABC News. These vehicles span an age range of 1-15 years, accumulated mileage of up to 232,250 miles and multiple generations and model types. In cases that we have inspected and are able to determine root cause, we have not seen any pattern related to quality or component failure. Vehicle fires can result from a wide variety of external reasons unrelated to product defect. In addition, ABC News indicated that they had some examples in other countries, but we are unable to comment on any incidents outside of the US.

That might sound like traditional cover-your-ass legal boilerplate, but BMW makes a good point. The vehicles uncovered by ABC News span 15 years of vehicle production, and they include radically different models with different mileages and varying service records.

It would be hard to find a component shared across that many vehicles for that many years, nevertheless one that would be capable of starting a fire if assembled or manufactured improperly. BMW, having access to every single part number it's ever put in a car, would certainly be able to find a common point of failure. It claims it did its due diligence in attempting to pull causation from correlation.

BMW

It also bears mentioning that the 40-or-so fires ABC News uncovered took place over the course of five years, an average of eight per year. According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, in 2015, there were 174,000 reported highway vehicle fires. That comes out to about 476 per day, or just under 20 vehicles per hour.

BMW holds roughly 2 percent of the market in the US, so of those 174,000 reported fires, one could reasonably assume that BMWs would be involved in 3,480 fires in just that single year, provided all automakers were equally involved. Uncovering 40 fires over five years seems statistically insignificant.

But, of course, it would be irresponsible to discount these fires, in the event that there is something worth investigating. ABC News brought its findings to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees recalls in the US. The NHTSA also found no evidence of a defect across this group, although it did suggest that owners report all incidents to the NHTSA in the event they become statistically significant.

Perhaps that's the most important takeaway from the ABC News investigation. Even though these specific fires may just be freak events that don't have a common thread aside from the badge on the trunk, it's important to report any strange events to the NHTSA, so that the government can put its full weight behind a potential investigation. Keeping track of these events is incredibly important when it comes to keeping companies honest about defects and safety concerns.

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