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The test of fire for new manufacturers and users of electric vehicles

Auto experts say the incidents aren’t due to a minor design flaw that can be easily fixed – it’s the basic structural ailment of lithium-ion battery use

News of the EVs on fire has gone viral and most of those who signed up for EVs are now rethinking their decision. (Representative image)

Pune, Vellore, Tiruchirapalli and Chennai don’t have much in common except that all four cities reported fire cases of electric two-wheelers in the last week of March 2022. The images The horrific death of a father and his 13-year-old daughter in Vellore’s death when their charging e-scooter caught fire on March 29 has alarmed the middle classes. It also rattled the booming electric vehicle (EV) industry and the political repercussions were felt in Parliament as well.

Incidentally, the lithium-ion batteries used caused the mishap in all four cases. So the searchlights have now moved to these batteries. Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, the action hero in Narendra Modi’s cabinet, attempted to allay fears expressed by Lok Sabha members by saying on March 31: “About 85% of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles circulating in India are manufactured in the country itself. From the government, we have set the standard for these batteries. If a manufacturer does not meet the specified safety standards, action will be taken. “

The statistics he later released on the growth of the electric vehicle industry only added to concerns amid repeated reports of electric vehicles catching fire despite these (ineffective) safety standards.

Impressive numbers

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Gadkari said that in March, 10,95,746 electric vehicles were registered in India. He added that over the past year, sales of electric vehicles have grown rapidly. Citing the figures, he said that sales of electric two-wheelers had increased by 423%, sales of four-wheeled electric vehicles by 238% and sales of electric vehicles in the category of heavy vehicles, namely buses, of 1250%. Overall, the sale of electric vehicles increased by 162%, concluded Gadkari.

The high numbers could be due to a weak base effect, but the growth over the past year has been impressive, indicating an infatuation among auto users for electric vehicles. Modi’s political declaration at COP26 in Glasgow – that by 2030 India would switch fully to electric vehicles – and his subsequent reiteration by Gadkari that fossil fuel vehicles would be banned from Indian roads eight years later later, likely added to this new EV rush.

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

The top 10 EV manufacturers 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 caught fire had been made by high-profile companies like Ola, Okinawa and Pure EV. The remaining nearly 1 lakh EVs have been sold by many start-ups and MSMEs whose number has already exceeded 100. Now, almost all EV buyers would be worried as their vehicle might also explode.

Some automotive experts believe that this is not a minor design flaw that can be remedied by recalling the first batches of vehicles sold. This is the basic structural disease of using lithium-ion batteries. If the number of fires increases in the coming days, it could have a devastating effect on sales.

Dangers of lithium-ion batteries

Why are lithium-ion batteries so dangerous? Professor M Murugan, who teaches EV technology at the Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), said The Federal“Lithium is a highly flammable element. Lithium-ion has a high affinity for oxygen. In batteries, charging and discharging generate heat. The faster the charge, the greater the heat generated. Heat is also generated when the charge runs out quickly during use. When the heat generated exceeds a critical point, the lithium, which is a solid fuel contained in the batteries, catches fire.

When asked why such dangerous technology was so widely used, Murugan replied, “Battery technology has evolved over time. Ordinary car batteries use lead acid electrodes to generate electricity. They take up more space and are quite heavy. Lithium-ion batteries, much smaller in size and weight, can store six to eight times more energy.”

The race to pack the most power into batteries of the smallest volume and lightest weight started in airplanes, he said, where weight is a major consideration. In the process, lithium-ion battery technology emerged. It later found wider use in other fields and the same is used in cell phones and laptops. This is the reason why phones get hot while charging and it is not advisable to overcharge it or talk while charging as it may explode, he pointed out.

Marketing over security

In addition to heating up when charging and depleting the charge, multiple contact points in the electrical circuit can also generate sparks that can ignite lithium, he added. In some advanced battery devices, software in the microprocessor chips would regulate charging based on temperature level.

Sometimes, if the quality of this is compromised to cut costs, it can lead to disaster. “The recent disturbing fires are proof that companies are opting to bring next-generation lithium-ion batteries to market before implementing ironclad safety devices for heat monitoring and heat reduction,” he said. added Murugan.

An electric bus using lithium-ion batteries newly purchased by the Telangana Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) caught fire on February 22, 2022 in Hyderabad. Fortunately, this happened during the charge, so there were no casualties. Boeing’s entire Dreamliner fleet 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 on sodium-based batteries. It is also flammable but less dangerous than lithium-ion batteries. However, it will take time before it comes into commercial use,” Murugan said.

The math behind the electric vehicle rush

The price of the electric scooter is almost double or even more than a gasoline scooter. Although cheap electric scooters are also available from Rs 60,000, premium brands cost around Rs 1.35 lakh while popular petrol models can be had for half price.

But the day-to-day fuel costs are very low in the case of electric scooters. A petrol two-wheeler would average a mileage of 100 km per liter costing around Rs 100. Charging an electric scooter costs Rs 10 and it would give a mileage of 70 km; thus, it would cost around Rs 15 to travel the same 100 km. It’s the advantage that makes people flock to EVs.

Demand is such that some customers who had signed up for Ola electric scooters by paying the full amount in mid-2021 have yet to receive the vehicle despite the company starting delivery in December 2021. Since Ola and several other companies selling electric vehicles had announced full refunds of booking fees, there is now a rush to cancel as safety concerns trump considerations of cheaper fuel.

News of the EVs on fire has gone viral and most of those who signed up for EVs are now rethinking their decision. Banks and credit institutions have generously provided loans to electric vehicle manufacturers for their expansion plans based on the number of reservations. Now their calculations have also been turned upside down.

Seeing the rush for electric vehicles, huge volumes of new investment have poured in and existing manufacturers have greatly expanded their manufacturing capacity. All of these plans are now out of whack.

The future

Since Gujarat’s political leaders like Modi and Amit Shah are business savvy, more and more investors have come to the state to invest in electric vehicle manufacturing. With its electric vehicle manufacturing base, Gujarat hoped to become the automotive capital of the country, replacing Tamil Nadu with its fossil fuel automobile manufacturing base.

Now, such calculations could receive a blow. More than that, many start-ups have mushroomed in the EV space. A quick glance at Justdial.com reveals a list of over 100 electric vehicle manufacturers. If many of them fold, the job losses would be massive.

R Kumar, former senior official of United India Insurance, said The Federal“If recent electric vehicle accidents continue and increase in number, they have the potential to set the finances of the insurance industry on fire as they will have to pay out a huge sum to settle claims under the scheme. motor vehicle insurance To save lives and the insurance industry, the government should strictly enforce rigorous safety standards.”

A quality systems consultant, who has extended his consultancy services to many manufacturing units in Bengaluru, including some electric vehicle units, said The Federal“If the right quality of safety devices are in place, it is possible to avoid fire accidents. The government should immediately suspend the sale of electric vehicles until it is assured that all manufacturers have installed such quality safety features.

“The government had abolished the registration requirement for electric vehicles in order to encourage them to be promoted. It requires a makeover. As physical verification might not be possible in all cases, the government should impose a huge fine – say, Rs 30 lakh to Rs 50 lakh in damages to be paid to buyers – in cases where EVs catch fire.

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

(The author is a seasoned journalist based in Allahabad)