The EV Safety Conundrum

by Aravind Subramanian & Subhabrata Sengupta 12 Sep 2022


Aravind Subramanian, Consultant, Avalon Consulting & Subhabrata Sengupta, Executive Director, Avalon Consulting

Most of us are now aware of multiple incidents where we have seen Electric Vehicles catching fire and the vehicle engulfed in smoke and flames. About half a dozen such incidents have occurred from across India of brands like Pure EV, OLA Electric, Okinawa, even Tata Motors recently. The issue is serious since there have been fatalities and it is a serious safety concern which needs to be resolved at the earliest.

About 10 years back, a model from Tesla caught fire. A metal fragment had punctured the battery pack leading to the fire. It is surprising that after a decade, we are still grappling with this issue and haven’t solved this problem.

This article addresses why EVs catch fire, what implications it has on the Automotive industry, Regulatory Environment, Battery Technology.

Top reasons why EVs catch fire 

  • Thermal Runaways caused by short circuits (internal or external).
  • Faulty battery management systems with imperfect mechanisms to ensure they are in safe operating temperatures.
  • Quality issues (connectors or wires, contamination or low-quality materials used in the battery)
  • Physical Damages (deformation, penetration, accidental damage)
  • Design of the Battery Pack (Cylindrical – radiate heat better compared to prismatic cells, Pouch – soft lightweight offers better safety than metal casings, Prismatic – although light and thin, one faulty cell, can affect the whole pack).

Remedial actions when EVs catch fire  
There is a lot of confusion on what to do in case of a fire in an EV. Conventional methods to put out a fire relies on the logic of cutting the oxygen supply to the area which is in flames. Sand, usage of fire extinguishers, or even water in some cases help in isolating the atmospheric oxygen that supports combustion. 

If the battery reaches a certain threshold “runaway temperature”, the chemicals in the battery itself cause an exothermic reaction and enhance combustion. In case this happens, water or wet sand can be counterproductive as water can liberate hydrogen gas from Lithium compounds, causing an explosion. Dry sand or ABC powder fire extinguishers can be useful – and it is important to isolate the vehicle to prevent other objects catching fire.

However, some experts feel that as Lithium-Ion batteries do not have Lithium in metal powder form, using water is useful in initial stages before the runway. 

There is a lack of a standard operating procedure of what to do when an EV catches fire as of now. This must be addressed at the earliest given the safety is at stake.

The Implications 
Battery Technology R&D

The battery technologies that are currently used for electric vehicles are as below

  • NCA – Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminium Oxide  
  • LMO – Lithium Manganese Oxide
  • NMC – Lithium Manganese Cobalt Oxide
  • LFP – Lithium Iron Phosphate

As it can be observed from the image above, there are different factors of consideration while choosing the right battery based on need. LFP as a battery technology packs the most power and has the highest safety rating compared to the rest. But the trade-off compared to NMC / NCA which is currently being used widely is on energy density, life, and cost. 

Also, an advantage of LFP is the stability in the prices of Iron, Phosphates compared to the elements in NMC. But the Nickel based batteries usually come with higher energy density which means in a smaller pack, you can get more power, but this comes with some safety concerns. There are some interesting developments in increasing the performance of LFP batteries which may result in it being adopted more widely, especially in 2 or 3 wheelers without liquid thermal management system.

Zeroing in on the right technology to be used for the EVs becomes critical at this point. As we see, there are surely constraints in every technology that we currently have. While trade-offs are a must, it should no longer be on safety!

Government & Regulatory Environment
As soon as the news of EV fire became viral on the internet, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways tasked the Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO) with investigating the reasons why EVs catch fire. Their report stated the reason for these recent fires as serious defects in the design of battery packs and modules primarily due to usage of low-grade materials.

Another government created committee observed poor battery testing criteria. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has put out new performance standards for Li-ion batteries as an immediate step.

The Minister also acknowledged that the government has erred in not taking the steps to ensure safety and quality of these lithium batteries used in EVs. After the knee jerk warnings given to the companies on heavy penalties, the companies have received notices from the Government to justify why they should not be penalized. 

Currently, elaborate quality-centric guidelines are being developed which will soon be enforced on the manufacturers. The country had already witnessed mis-selling of EVs a few years back where electric cycles were sold as scooters to consumers when the battery technology was also nascent. 

While these actions have come in later than it should have been, it is a welcome move to ensure regulations are stringent to prevent the teething issues that we are witnessing today.

Automotive Industry 
As an immediate step, the companies whose scooters went up in flames ordered recall of some of the batches of vehicles. Pure EV initiated a recall of 2,000 of its electric scooters while Okinawa recalled more than 3,000 of its EVs to check for potential safety issues. Ola recalled over 1,400 of its electric scooters in the wake of the fire incidents. From an industry standpoint, it is good to see that companies are now taking responsibility and recalling vehicles to check for safety concerns. It shows that they are accountable and want to be a part of the solution and not the problem. This intent is a welcome move as it also instils some hope in the potential EV customers.

Having said that India doesn’t have a strong track record of vehicle recalls. These recalls have generally been to do some safety checks, validations, minor tweaks. Recently, the Government released a mandatory vehicle recall policy. The policy states that the ministry will be performing screening, analysis, investigation and lastly recall based on consumer complaints received. These mandatory recalls should not just be limited to minor checks / tweaks. Since, in the current context, the changes needed to prevent fires can potentially be more exhaustive and may need a recall and replace solution.

Industry experts acknowledge that these fires do have a near-term negative impact. But, in the long term, they don’t see this as an impediment to EV sales. There are some teething issues and believe that industry is actively involved in solving the same. Also, in terms of maturity of the EV industry in still not high. We have over 25-30 companies and start-ups which are into manufacturing of two and three wheelers. And there hasn’t really been a consolidation in the market like in some global markets which are usually dominated by about 7-8 players. 

Way forward
It is important that industry implements best practices and safety standards and deploys the right combination of battery chemistry, cell design and battery management system to minimize risks of such incidents. 

The government needs to come up with stringent regulations for testing, quality, technology, handling safety hazard and properly enforced on manufacturers. A safety-first approach is key to the development of standard operating procedures for both manufacturers and public to handle an EV fire. This is critical to ensure safety and reduce misinformation.

The mandatory vehicle recall policy also should have better transparency and clauses to ensure that consumers are not at risk and the recalls not be limited to just minor tweaks, safety checks. This will improve the consumer confidence in purchasing EVs.
With evolution in technology that would happen in tandem with better regulatory environment we hope that these issues are just minor blips that get sorted out and the EV landscape in India gets only better over time.
 


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