Inadequate testing, poor expertise in battery making ail India’s electric vehicle industry

Centre has ordered probe after many incidents of batteries catching fire

Updated - April 30, 2022 10:55 am IST

Published - April 30, 2022 05:22 am IST - NEW DELHI

The government had ordered a probe last month after an electric scooter launched by ride-hailing operator Ola’s electric mobility arm caught fire in Pune. File

The government had ordered a probe last month after an electric scooter launched by ride-hailing operator Ola’s electric mobility arm caught fire in Pune. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

 With the Centre having constituted a committee to investigate instances of batteries in electric vehicles malfunctioning and catching fire, experts say these are often due to inadequate testing of such batteries for Indian conditions, limited expertise in manufacturing batteries and part of a “learning curve” that accompanied increased adoption of battery-operated vehicles.

The government had ordered a probe last month after an electric scooter launched by ride-hailing operator Ola’s electric mobility arm caught fire in Pune. The Centre for Fire, Explosive and Environment Safety (CFEES) had been asked to probe the circumstances that led to the incident and suggest remedial measures, according to the Road Transport Ministry.

Ola Electric in a statement said the company was recalling 1,441 units of its electric two-wheelers in the wake of incidents of vehicles catching fire. Okinawa Autotech had recalled over 3,000 units, while PureEV did a similar exercise for around 2,000 units.

‘Priority to safety’

Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said that while the government wanted to encourage electric vehicle adoption, companies would be wise to take advance action to recall all defective vehicles as “safety was the highest priority for the government and there could be no compromise with human lives.”

India’s automobile industry consists of about 18 million two-wheelers and four million cars and the proportion of electric vehicles was “miniscule”. Nitin Seth, Chief Executive Officer, New Mobility, Reliance Industries, said at a seminar on Friday, “Each electric vehicle system has its own battery charging and energy management system. It is not simple plug and play as it was made out to be. One of the reasons for these thermal incidents is that batteries have not been properly integrated into the vehicles,” he noted. “This isn’t a simple screwdriver technology and needs people with technical expertise in electric vehicle technology, which India unfortunately has too few of.” He was speaking at a seminar on the future of electric vehicles organised by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

The batteries used to power electric vehicles, both cars and two-wheelers, are of the lithium-ion category or similar to the kinds used in mobile phones.

Battery management system

A few years ago, mobile phone batteries were known to explode or malfunction, if they were left to charge indefinitely but over time phone software was integrated to ensure that batteries cut off automatically when fully charged. It’s the battery management system (BMS) that takes care of this and battery makers usually have their own in-house system to develop such a BMS and conduct extensive tests to determine the optimal conditions for their batteries to function. However, a global surge in demand for electric vehicles, buoyed by a decrease in battery prices and rise in fuel prices means that there have been several manufactures who have imported batteries, bought off-the-shelf BMS and not tested them for Indian conditions.

There are about 50-60 two-wheeler electric vehicle makers in India and about 300 original equipment manufacturers of all electric vehicles (2,3,4 wheelers), said Rishabh Jain, who leads policy issues around renewable energy, energy storage and electric mobility at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a Delhi think tank. “Three-wheelers make up 40% of the electric vehicle sales, but we rarely hear of fires in them or for that matter four-wheelers. It is largely in the two-wheelers,” he added. Hype around electric two-wheelers had lured start-ups and tech companies into being flush with venture capital to cash in on the electric vehicle boom but few had expertise in battery making or BMS systems that were imported from China and this often led to compromises in quality and inadequate testing, according to Mr. Jain.

Fitting compact batteries into electric vehicles requires batteries to be of a certain size and having an efficient ventilation system. Two-wheelers, because they were smaller and can’t be priced as much as cars, often compromised on this point and coupled with high heat and conditions on Indian roads, were thus more vulnerable to battery-linked accidents.

“There is certainly a learning curve involved just as in mobile phones but the government must be extremely transparent with the findings of the committee — take action against errant companies if needed — and take the right steps to improve customer confidence,” Mr. Jain added.

(With inputs from PTI)

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