Animal may have caused dramatic Smart car fire

Transport Canada has released more information about fires in Smart cars in the wake of a recall affecting tens of thousands of vehicles in Canada and the U.S.

Transport Canada releases details of Queensway incident and others following recall of 2008-09 vehicles

Transport Canada says this fire in a Smart car in October may have been caused by animal nesting materials near the alternator. Smart cars with a model year of 2008 and 2009 are being recalled over a fire risk associated with an insulation mat in the engine compartment. (Marc Caron)

The fire that destroyed a Smart car being driven by a Swiss visitor to Ottawa last October may have been caused by an animal, Transport Canada has announced as the carmaker continues a recall of the same vehicles for a different reason.

The recall affects more than 40,000 vehicles in North America with a defective insulation mat in the engine compartment. Transport Canada has warned the mat can deteriorate and loosen, such that the material may come in contact with hot components, and potentially ignite. 

The recall applies to 2008 and 2009 Smart vehicles. 

The car that suddenly went up in flames on the Queensway near Bronson Avenue was a 2008, but in an email to CBC, Transport Canada said its investigation "identified animal nesting material near alternator as possible cause."

The department did not explain how investigators arrived at that conclusion, but added that "due to the significant amount of damage caused by the fire, the exact cause cannot be identified with absolute certainty."

There wasn't much left of the 2008 Smart car that burst into flames on Highway 417 last October. Transport Canada says it can't say for sure what caused the fire. (Susan Burgess)

'It must have been a very small rodent'

Aaron Matharu, who'd loaned the car that burned to his Swiss friend, said he was surprised by the explanation for the fire. The car — which was owned by his father — was normally parked in an underground garage in downtown Ottawa, and the space in the engine compartment was tiny.

"It must have been a very small rodent," Matharu said. 

He still believes a defect is the more likely cause and hopes Mercedes-Benz Canada — which manufactures Smart cars — will compensate his family for the loss, which was not covered by insurance. However, when he followed up with the company after the recall was announced, it directed him to Transport Canada for the results of the vehicle investigation.

"I was hoping they'd say we fall under the recall and they'd transfer us to some sort of compensation department," Matharu said, adding the family hoped only to recover the resale value of the vehicle.

Mercedes-Benz Canada has not responded to CBC's questions about whether it will compensate vehicle owners whose Smart cars have already been destroyed by fire.

Aaron Matharu hopes Mercedes-Benz Canada will compensate his family for the loss of a Smart car destroyed by fire. (Susan Burgess)

List of Smart car fires in Canada continues to grow

Transport Canada has also released new details of its investigation into other Smart car fires.

The investigation appears to have begun after CBC's report of the October fire on the Queensway, though U.S. authorities began looking into unexplained fires in the vehicles almost a year earlier.

Transport Canada also dismissed a report of a July 2017 fire in Elmira, Ont., as not related to a safety defect. The car's owner later told CBC she believed the fire started in the same insulation mat that's now the subject of the recall.  

Transport Canada now says it's aware of seven Smart car fires in total, two of which have not been previously reported by CBC.

One of them happened in Ottawa in 2012, in a parked 2008 Smart vehicle. The incident was reported to Transport Canada last December and its cause remains undetermined, according to the department.

The second happened in August 2016 near Cornerbrook, N.L. Transport Canada was notified last October and describes it as crucial to Mercedes-Benz Canada's decision to recall vehicles in Canada.

"As there was smoke but no fire, the condition of the vehicle enabled investigators to identify the likely cause," said an emailed statement from Transport Canada. "The incident report, combined with other incidents reported by the public, was shared with Mercedes-Benz Canada, which led to the 2018 recall."

The cause of a fire in a Smart car of unknown vintage on Walkley Road near Sheffield Road last December remains a mystery. Transport Canada said it was unable to access the vehicle and the owner did not respond to requests for information.

Owner of another Smart car model also concerned

News of the recall of 2008 and 2009 vehicles prompted the owner of another type of Smart car to peek inside the engine compartment.

Ashley Frankum-Beauty of Picton, Ont., said she was troubled by the state of the insulation mat in her 2011 car, which she bought new in St. Catharines, Ont. 

"It looks like there was actually a fire," she said. 

Ashley Frankum-Beauty is concerned about the state of the engine compartment insulation in her 2011 Smart car. (Ashley Frankum-Beauty)

Frankum-Beauty's two-year-old child is a frequent passenger, she said, adding that her concern has driven her to start looking for a new car.

"I've put a hold on going to visit my family and friends in St. Catharines because I don't feel comfortable taking my car on the highway at this point," she said.

She's also emailed Mercedes-Benz Canada through the company's website, but said she has not yet received a response.

Recalls frequently expand, safety expert says

The director of the Montreal-based Automobile Protection Association, a safety watchdog, advised all concerned Smart car owners to have their engine insulation checked by a technician, because the cohort of vehicles affected by recalls frequently expands, sometimes more than once.

"I would absolutely call Transport Canada if you see any evidence of a beginning of a fire risk," Iny said. "And take photos."

Mercedes-Benz Canada did not respond to a question about whether the insulation mat changed in model years later than 2009, nor how the company records complaints about potential safety defects.

Some of the people who have reported Smart car fires in Canada have told CBC that Mercedes-Benz Canada and Smart car dealers dismissed their incidents as the first such fires they'd heard about.

Allowing complaints to simply disappear, instead of logging them diligently, keeps carmakers blind to patterns that would reveal safety risks they're required to address, Iny said. He is troubled by documents connected to the U.S. investigation which say Mercedes-Benz USA investigated only two of 27 reports of fires in Smart car engine compartments.

Companies are required by law to keep records about potential safety defects, and Iny hopes amendments passed in March to Canadian motor vehicle safety legislation will better motivate them to do so.

The new law does not require insurance companies to disclose potential safety defects to Transport Canada, a change Iny had hoped to see to better protect drivers and passengers.

About the Author

Susan Burgess

Associate Producer

Susan Burgess is an associate producer on CBC Radio's All In A Day. You can reach her at Susan.Burgess@cbc.ca or on Twitter @susanmburgess.