Electric scooter fires put spotlight on safety

by Amit Vijay M 28 Mar 2022


With yet another scooter catching fire, this time in Tiruchi, the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (MoRTH) has said it will also send officials to investigate the cause. It had earlier said it would send its officials to investigate two previous incidents involving well-known brands where the fires were apparently caused by the battery exploding.

To add to these concerns, a three-month old video of a Hero Electric showroom in Vizag that caught fire, and which has now gone viral, would only exacerbate fears that the electric scooters are potentially dangerous. Hero Electric said the incidents are unfortunate and added that it has “stopped our association with this dealer in 2020”.

Okinawa, maker of the scooter that caught fire in Vellore put out a statement placing the blame on faulty and old plug points being used by the owner, for the cause. “This  particular case has further brought to light how important it is for users to understand the charging guidelines for EVs,” the company said.

In the case of the Pune fire involving an Ola scooter, a spokesperson said the company is in touch with the customer. “Vehicle safety is of paramount importance at Ola. We take this incident seriously and will take appropriate action and share more in the coming days.”

Nishanth Dongari, founder, PUR Energy, manufacturer of the scooter that caught fire in Trichy told Autocar Professional that details of the incident have been shared with their dealer and an investigation is in progress. “We adhere to the highest safety standards through rigorous internal testing as well as special phase change materials being implemented in our battery packs to avoid rapid fire/blast kind of scenarios,” he said.

MInistry probe

A MoRTH official  said a government-constituted team of experts  will be probing the external and internal reasons for the fires. “The mishaps could have happened because of external environmental impact. It’s only after we know the facts can we go into further details” he added.

Meanwhile, agencies that were testing batteries and aggregates are now considering enlarging the scope including vehicles. This could mean a pre- inspection of the vehicle including safety or fire audits. Agencies like the Automotive Research Association of India or ARAI and ICAT are responsible for giving type approvals, conduct tests related to safety, performance and durability of batteries. “Since electric vehicles are a new animal, there has to be some pre-inspection done of the vehicle like a safety or fire audit. That regime has to come. Even internationally such audits are being considered,” said a person aware of the discussions at a testing agency.

The fires have out the spotlight on consumer education. Okinawa claims it has done its bit to educate customers and has been taking initiatives to create awareness on the proper usage of electric two-wheelers. It has also made customers aware about the possible hazards that they could experience if they do not maintain their vehicle batteries.

Buyer education

Sohinder Gill, President and Director General, Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV) also  emphasizes customer education. The EV owner needs to be made aware about the requirements of regular service, proper electric wiring for charging and the tell-tale signs of an abnormal battery condition, he said. “We at SMEV are constantly in touch with the willing OEMs to exchange the latest research findings and the actions being taken by various agencies world over to have safer EVs,” said Gill.

However, Ambi Parameswaran, brand strategist and founder, Brandbuilding.com points out that the EV maker cannot shirk the responsibility of creating awareness about the technology, charging and other critical areas.  “While I have seen many advertisements highlighting the performance and range of an EV, there’s hardly any  communication around awareness.”

Considering that the segment is seeing a completely new set of buyers of varied profiles, social media can play a very important role in creating awareness in local languages, says Parameswaran.

According to safety experts, irrespective of the outside temperature the PCM (pace change mechanism) ensures that batteries remain at optimum temperature. The PCM system absorbs the excess heat generated by the battery of the electric vehicles close to the battery module. If the temperature of the battery reaches the PCM’s melting temperature, then heat will be stored in the form of latent heat and the temperature increase is minimised, hence a fire situation gets avoided.   PCMs undergo the phase change phenomenon by absorbing or releasing the abundant heat from the battery and thus preventing a fire.

According to Gill, “100 percent safe batteries is a global quest for EVs. Some of the possible ways of handling this battery-related critical concern  for EV users is to switch from “less volatile chemistries to safer ones” and multi-layered safety design that can try and stop or at least reduce the propagation of fire.”

Models produced by the manufacturers lacking in safety should be recalled, fixed and only then be allowed to ply, said Balraj Bhanot, former director, ARAI and former chairman at Central Motor Vehicle Regulation. In his view, it’s critical that the government introduces a mandatory-- not voluntary vehicle recall.

On-road testing

The ideal approach is to design batteries specifically for the harsh and demanding Indian conditions, said an Ather Energy spokesperson.  In the event that OEMs are importing batteries or technology platforms, it is imperative that they not only modify them for Indian conditions, but also invest enough time and effort in on-road testing before they start commercial production. That phase of testing and validation cannot be compromised, the spokesperson added.

Diego Graffi, chairman and CEO at Piaggio Vehicles India said, “Too many cases of EV vehicles from different startup brands catching fire cannot be a coincidence.” Appropriate action at the government level needs to be taken and stricter standards for batteries and EV powertrain quality need to be implemented as soon as possible, he added.

Arun Sreyas co-founder and chief executive, RACEnergy, a battery swapping firm, believes that manufacturers are “massively cutting down on testing and development time.” He attributes it to huge pressures to roll out products quickly. “Technology should better lives, not take lives,” he said.

As much as the incidents have to be condoned, the industry is still in its learning phase, said a safety expert. “Nobody has the complete confidence as of now that if this (additional level of testing) is done, no untoward incident will happen. It’s a part of the learning curve globally.” This is a very sensitive subject and needs to be dealt with maturity by all the stakeholders – be it the media, policy makers or manufacturers,  he added.

Globally, there have been at least 25 incidents of electric vehicles including Tesla cars involved in fire accidents, according to international media reports. In 2021, Hyundai recalled more than 75,000 Kona electric SUVs globally including 456 units in India, after more than a dozen battery fire incidents were reported. Also, General Motors recalled 73,000 Chevrolet Bolt EVs due to concerns of potential battery fires.