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What separates a reliable EV from a potential fire hazard?

Experts discuss the pitfalls of poorly manufactured batteries and what sort of conditions lead to an e-scooter becoming a fire hazard.

March 30, 2022 / 08:50 AM IST
Representative image.

Representative image.

In terms of sturdiness, an electric vehicle (EV) has fewer moving parts than gasoline vehicles,” said Bhavish Agarwal in an interview with Moneycontrol, a day before the highly anticipated launch of the Ola S1 e-scooters. The statement was in response to a question regarding the robustness of e-scooters which would have to go toe-to-toe with a massive brigade of internal combustion workhorses that plied the hinterland, taking consistent abuse from the terrain and climatic conditions in their stride. Agarwal’s sentiment was later echoed by Ola Electric’s Chief Marketing Officer Varun Dubey on the day of the Ola S1 Pro’s press ride, when he told me that it has been subjected to a battery of tests that would make it suitable for India’s particularly challenging environment.

On March 26, a video began circulating on the internet, documenting an Ola S1 Pro in Pune, emitting smoke before being engulfed in flames. The video indicated that the scooter was unaccompanied by its owner, didn’t appear to have suffered any damage to its exterior shell and wasn’t next to any heat source or combustible item at the time of the incident. The company quickly issued a statement acknowledging that it was, indeed, its scooter and that it was looking into the matter. What caused the fire remains unknown to both the brand and the many viewers of the video. In a more tragic turn of events, an Okinawa scooter exploded in Vellore, killing a man and his daughter. Okinawa Motors has issued a statement blaming consumer negligence in charging the vehicle, while Ola Electric is looking into what factors, internal or external, caused the fire. While this isn’t the first time a lithium-ion battery has exploded, it has thrown the inherent fire risk posed by battery packs into sharp relief.

So under what circumstances can EV batteries catch fire? What sort of countermeasures and safety mechanisms are EV brands required to keep, and just what deviation from these standards can lead to a scooter or a vehicle posing a fire risk? “Lithium-ion batteries do not like high temperatures, especially at high state of charge,” says Chetan Maini, arguably the country’s foremost authority on battery technology. The chairman of SUN Mobility gave the world its first compact, low-cost EV – the Reva (G-Wiz in international markets) two decades ago, before going on to co-found SUN Mobility, providing li-ion battery packs and battery swapping solutions for EVs.

“At SUN Mobility, our team has been working with li-ion technology for over 17 years and understands the key challenges in safely deploying li-ion battery solutions. It starts with a stringent selection of the cell, chemistry and manufacturer and a host of tests such as over-charge, short circuit, high temperatures, nail penetration, crush, vibration testing etc. The next is a robust design of the battery pack to ensure mechanical integrity and thermal management,” says Maini, whose company has tested over 15 million kilometres with over a million swaps, till date.