An ordeal by fire for new electric vehicle makers and users

An ordeal by fire for new electric vehicle makers and users

Auto experts say the incidents are not due to a minor design flaw that can be remedied easily - it is the basic structural malady of using lithium-ion batteries

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Pune, Vellore, Tiruchirapalli and Chennai do not have much in common except that all four cities reported instances of electric two-wheelers catching fire in the last week of March 2022. The horrific images of a father and his 13-year-old daughter in Vellore dying when their e-scooter being charged went up in flames, on March 29, have alarmed the middle classes. It has also shaken up the burgeoning electric vehicles (EVs) industry and the political reverberations were felt within Parliament, too.

Incidentally, the lithium-ion batteries used caused the mishap in all the four cases. So, the spotlight has now shifted to these batteries. Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, the action hero in Narendra Modi’s cabinet, tried to douse the fears expressed by members in the Lok Sabha by declaring on March 31: “Around 85 per cent of the lithium-ion batteries used in the EVs plying in India are manufactured in the country itself. From the government, we have fixed the standard for these batteries. If any manufacturer fails to follow the specified safety norms, action would be taken.”

The statistics he then reeled out about the growth of the electric vehicle industry only added to the concerns in the backdrop of repeated reports of EVs catching fire despite those (ineffective) safety norms.

Impressive numbers

Gadkari said that as of March, 10,95,746 EVs had been registered in India. He added that over the past year, EV sales have increased rapidly. Giving the figures, he said electric two-wheeler sales increased 423 per cent, the sales of four-wheeler EVs by 238 per cent and the sale of electric vehicles in the heavy vehicles category, viz., buses, by 1,250 per cent. On the whole, the sale of EVs increased by 162 per cent, Gadkari concluded.

The high numbers might be due to a low base effect but still the growth over the past year has been impressive, indicating a craze among automobile users for EVs. Modi’s policy declaration at COP26 in Glasgow — that by 2030, India would totally shift to EVs — and its subsequent reiteration by Gadkari, that fossil fuel vehicles would be banned on Indian roads eight years down the line, probably added to this new rush for EVs.

The industrial chamber of EV manufacturers is the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV). According to SMEV figures, 2,33,971 EV units were sold in calendar year 2021, as compared to 1,00,736 units in 2020.

The top 10 manufacturers of EVs in 2021 were: Ludhiana-based Hero Electric (46,214 units), Okinawa (29,868 units), Bengaluru-based Ather Energy (15,836 units), Ampere (12,417 units), Pure EV (10,946 units), TVS Motor Company (5,368 units), Rhe evolt (4,687 units), Bajaj Auto (4,532 units), Benling India (4,421 units) and Jitendra New EV (1,930 units).

The electric two-wheelers that went up in flames had been manufactured by high-profile companies like Ola, Okinawa and Pure EV. The nearly 1 lakh remaining EVs were sold by numerous start-ups and MSMEs whose number has already crossed 100. Now almost everyone among the EV buyers would be worried, as potentially their vehicle can explode, too.

Some automobile experts opine that it is not a minor design flaw that can be remedied by recalling the first few batches of the sold vehicles. It is the basic structural malady of using lithium-ion batteries. If the number of instances of catching fire increases in the days to come, it might have a devastating effect on sales.

Hazards of lithium-ion batteries

Why are lithium-ion batteries so hazardous? Prof M Murugan, who teaches EV technology in Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), told The Federal: “Lithium is a highly inflammable element. Lithium-ion has much affinity for oxygen. In batteries, charging and discharging generates heat. The faster the charging, the greater the heat generared. Heat is also generated when the charge gets depleted fast while in use. When the heat generated rises above a critical point, lithium, which is a combustible solid packed in the batteries, catches fire.”

When asked why such a hazardous technology is being used so widely, Murugan replied: “Battery technology has evolved over time. Ordinary car batteries use lead electrodes and acid to generate electricity and they occupy more space and are quite heavy. Lithium-ion batteries, with much smaller size and weight, can store six to eight times more energy”.

The race to pack the maximum energy in batteries of the smallest volume and lowest weight started in aircrafts, he said, where weight is a major consideration. In the process, lithium-ion battery technology emerged. It then found wider use in other fields and the same is used in cell phones and laptops. That’s the reason  phones get heated up while charging and it is not advisable to overcharge it or to talk while charging as it might blast, he pointed out.

Commercialisation above safety

Besides heating up at the time of charging and depleting the charge, several contact points in the electrical circuit might also generate sparks which can ignite lithium, he added. In some advanced battery devices, a software in microprocessor chips would regulate charging based on the level of temperature.

Sometimes, if the quality of this is compromised for saving costs, it might lead to disaster. “The recent worrisome fire incidents are a proof that companies go for commercialisation of new generation lithium-ion batteries before putting in place fool-proof heat monitoring and heat reduction safety devices,” Murugan added.

An electric bus using lithium-ion batteries newly purchased by the Telangana Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) caught fire on February 22, 2022 in Hyderabad. Luckily, this happened while charging and hence there were no causalities. The entire Dreamliner fleet of Boeing had to be grounded in December 2014 after smoke generated by lithium-ion batteries was detected.

Is there no substitute for lithium-ion batteries? “Research is underway in sodium-based batteries. It is also inflammable but less dangerous than lithium-ion batteries. However, it will take time before it enters commercial use,” Murugan said.

The math behind the EV rush

The electric scooter is priced at almost double the rate or even more compared to a petrol scooter. Though cheap electric scooters are also available from Rs 60,000 onwards, upmarket brands cost around Rs 1.35 lakh whereas popular petrol-based models can be purchased at half the price.

But day-to-day fuel costs are very low in the case of electric scooters. A petrol-based two-wheeler on an average would give a mileage of 100 km per litre costing around Rs 100. Charging an electric scooter costs Rs 10 and it would give a mileage of 70 km; so, it would cost around Rs 15 to cover the same 100 km. This is the advantage that makes people rush for EVs.

The demand is so much that some customers who had registered for Ola electric scooters by paying the full amount in the middle of 2021 are yet to receive the vehicle though the company started delivery in December 2021. Since Ola and several other companies selling EVs had announced full refund of booking charges, there is a rush now for cancellation because the concern for safety over-rides cheaper fuel considerations.

The news of EVs going up in flames has gone viral and most of those who have registered for EVs are now rethinking their decision. Banks and lending institutions generously gave EV manufacturers loans for their expansion plans based on the number of bookings. Now their calculations have also been upset.

Seeing the early rush for EVs, huge volumes of new investments flowed in and existing manufacturers vastly expanded their manufacturing capacity. All these plans have now gone haywire.

Future tense

Since political leaders from Gujarat, like Modi and Amit Shah, are business savvy, more and more investors trooped to that state for investment in EV manufacture. With its EV manufacturing base, Gujarat hoped to emerge as the automobile capital of the country, replacing Tamil Nadu with its fossil-fuel based auto manufacturing base.

Now, such calculations might receive a blow. More than that, numerous start-ups have mushroomed in the EV space. A cursory look at reveals a list of more than 100 EV manufacturers. If many of them fold up, the job losses would be massive.

R Kumar, formerly a senior official with United India Insurance, told The Federal: “If the recent EV mishaps continue and increase in number, they have the potential to set the finances of the insurance industry on fire as they will have to shell out a huge amount to clear claims under the Motor Vehicles Insurance Scheme. To save human lives as well as the insurance business, the government should strictly enforce rigorous safety norms”.

A quality systems consultant, who has been extending consultancy services to many manufacturing units in Bengaluru, including some EV units, told The Federal: “If the right quality of safety devices is in place, it is possible to avoid fire accidents. The government should immediately suspend the sale of EVs until it is ensured that all the manufacturers have installed such quality safety devices.

“The government had waived the registration requirement for EVs as an incentive to promote them. That requires a relook. As physical verification might not be possible in all cases, the government should levy a huge penalty — say, Rs 30 lakh to Rs 50 lakh in damages to be paid to the buyers — in cases where the EVs catch fire.”

This probably could save more lives in the days to come.

(The author is a senior journalist based in Allahabad)

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