Why Are Electric Scooters Catching Fire? And How To Keep Them Safe?
The sales of electric vehicles saw a boom over the past year in India but the recent spate of battery-related fires in these vehicles has brought to fore the safety concerns among existing customers as well as prospective buyers.
In the backdrop of these incidents, Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari issued a stern message to electric vehicle makers, asking them to proactively recall all defective batches of vehicles on an immediate basis. He also mentioned that they will issue necessary orders on the defaulting companies based on the recommendations of an expert committee looking into these matters, apart from releasing quality-centric guidelines for electric vehicles.
Companies that are found negligent in their processes will face a heavy penalty along with a mandatory recall of defective vehicles, he said.
In recent weeks, Okinawa Autotech has recalled over 3,000 units, while PureEV has recalled around 2,000 units and Ola Electric announced on April 24 that it will voluntarily recall 1,441 units.
On the 26th episode of Moneycontrol Masterclass, we bring together some of the best voices from the industry to discuss safety features for the tropics, purchase decisions for customers, and why these mishaps are bad news for a sector that has been gaining traction.
The panel comprised Sohinder Gill of Hero Electric, Chetan Maini of Sun Mobility, Vivekananda Hallekere of Bounce, Niraj Rajmohan of Ultraviolette, and Vinkesh Gulati of Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations (FADA). It was moderated by Moneycontrol’s Chandra R Srikanth. Here are some key takeaways:
How can customers keep their vehicles safe?
Sohinder Gill: Don't charge vehicles in a closed room, charge it on a veranda or somewhere where there's no inflammable components. Similarly, don't charge a scooter inside your house, just keep it outside and charge it. Even if something happens, it won't probably get into a type of disaster.
While handling your product, always keep checking your charges. Just put a hand on it and see whether it's overheating on your batteries, or otherwise, open the seat and see whether there is abnormal heat happening while you're charging the vehicle.
Even that would lead to some sort of an indication because all these incidents have some early warning signs. These are the abundant precautions which can at least lead to minimising such incidents, or at least eliminating this life and property losses.
Vivekananda Hallekere: Be smart when you are buying the scooters. Don't buy scooters just because they are available at a throwaway price. Ask a lot of questions. Educate yourself. I think the answer is out there, if you ask those questions, I think people will figure it out so don't be in a hurry to buy just any random electric scooter and then suffer.
What are the essential things people should know while buying electric vehicles?
Sohinder Gill: Customers have to be a little more learned about buying electric vehicles. This can be achieved at least to some level, by calling the company at the call centres, going through the website, or taking a look at the technical specs, and taking help from some technical friends of what really are they buying and does it have safety measures or not.
Vinkesh Gulati: If you are buying a product of a non-national brand, and that too buying a vehicle which doesn't need registrations (models below 25 kVA capacity), they really need to be very, very cautious because all the issues today are coming in that segment. The problem is those vehicles are not required to be registered, which means you don't need a driving licence (DL) or the need to drive with a helmet, you don't need to see any part of safety. Your whole life is at risk because you don't drive it in a genuine way. That's the biggest threat.
I feel that with all that is happening today, both the dealers and customers are becoming more intelligent and OEMs are also forthcoming with the details about how to run an EV or what's the precautions to be taken. Going further, customers will also take care of that, they will not just treat it like they treat a normal mobile, which has actually come way above, as far as safety and all those standards.
As of now, the market is in a pull category, wait for two years when it will move to the push category, we will all come out and give you all the details which can make your decision to come and buy our products.
What are companies doing to improve transparency?
Vivekananda Hallekere: What we are trying to do is instead of the battery being a black box, our batteries have telematics, which means that all the parameters can be remotely accessed. So, we are building a very simple dashboard for the users to see everything which is happening inside a battery and when they should be worried about, in a way that they can understand. So that gives them comfort. I think that should help in a lot of transparency around the battery users are buying.
Niraj Rajmohan: I think what has really worked for us and what we're seeing where the consumers interest is coming from is when we talk about our testing process, when we talk about the extreme levels to which we're subjecting our vehicles. We recently did a campaign where we pushed our vehicles to extreme conditions in terms of terrain, shock, ambient conditions, high temperatures, misuse, and, we openly and transparently talked about what we've been doing.
That started to resonate with consumers and we started to see a lot of questions around "I didn't think that an EV could do these kinds of things". They expect brands to be talking about these things and their minimum expectation in terms of EVs is also going to go up and there are going to be questions around testing and this is something that we are gearing up for.
I hope that consumers are more discerning in their choices. My opinion is that consumers should not be expected to do something different from what they're already used to doing. It is the responsibility of the manufacturers and the OEMs, which means that I'm taking responsibility and we are taking responsibility for the vehicles that we produce and the charging systems that we are working with. They shouldn't have to adjust their lifestyles to go around making compromises in their lifestyle to adapt to lower quality products.
What are some of the actions companies should do to repose back customer confidence?
Sohinder Gill: In terms of extreme short-term actions, the qualitative checks of whatever you have in your stock or customers have or dealers have has to be done to ensure that the things are separated, segregated to the best of the possibilities to see that at least the known bad things don't pass on to the customers. And if he has it, it's recalled back as is being done by some of the OEMs.
At least from now onwards OEMs should do a safety first performance later type of verbatim in terms of spreading awareness, even telling customers on how to keep the batteries or how to be contributing and keeping the batteries safe, whatever they have and in extreme case of any such hazards which have happened unfortunately, what actions should be taken to at least prevent the loss of life and property.
Chetan Maini: The two big challenges are around temperature and charging. If you do it through a swapping station that has thermal management, they really remove the two highest risks out of the system and that gives consumers a lot of confidence that they don't have to look at it in this area.
Vinkesh Gulati: I feel India has got into the EV bandwagon without any preparation. For instance, It took us a lot of time and slow and steady approach with ICE engine, this EV hype has led to a lot of new startups to come into the manufacturing of electric vehicles while all the major legacy players are still not aggressive and taking time to join this. I feel this has created a gap in between.
If a customer buys a nice two wheeler with ICE engine, he knows how that vehicle works whereas anybody buying an electric vehicle is just treating it as just another two wheeler, although it's a totally different thing. I feel the education is missing on how an auto works or auto tech works.
I feel somewhere the OEMs are to be blamed because they haven't given the right education to the customer that this is not a two wheeler. This is another mobile type gadget or electric gadget which needs proper care. A lot of OEMs have come up with FAQs on their websites, but those are not actually disseminated to the customer, which is creating more problems. If the customer was educated, we could have probably avoided some of these cases.
Vivekananda Hallekere: I think OEMs today are sitting on a lot of cash, they should invest in R&D. We all know that this is very important for the country. If the startups don't step in and do this, we will have more and more Chinese imports which are coming in. I'm not talking about China being bad, but just the bad Chinese scooters getting dumped in rural markets and people just buying it without understanding. So I think OEMs taking slow doesn't mean they are doing something right and startups who are launching are cutting corners or anything.
At what point should brands initiate a recall?
Sohinder Gill: It depends on what the impact is. First of all, if it is a life and property, obviously that is the ultimate thing. So that means you have to really go deeper into the roots and go to the last point and see it doesn't repeat again.
Depending on the intensity of the incident, and the type of corrections you can do at source, at the customer end or at the factory, you have to decide. So there's no fixed percentage type of a level. It's more to do with the brand that you're carrying, the respect of the brand, and the seriousness of the business that you want to do. So, it's an individual choice to a certain extent, but when it is threatening life and property, then it becomes a public issue. That's the time when the category is getting sort of a beating. There, every OEM, who has such an incident, has to act very swiftly to see to it that it doesn't repeat again.