A series of incidents involving electric two-wheelers catching fire has highlighted the need to incorporate fire safety as a core component in policies and schemes to promote EV and battery manufacturing
India’s EV growth story seems to have hit a speed bump. After registering impressive growth in sales, electric vehicles, more specifically electric two-wheelers are now confronted with concerns around product safety. What started as one-off malfunctions leading to electric two-wheelers going up in flames late last year has quickly evolved into a dangerous trend that has dented consumer confidence. Since December 2021, at least 20 separate incidents of EVs catching fire have been reported from across the country resulting in the loss of at least four lives and injuries to several others. The spate of incidents prompted the government to constitute a special committee tasked with identifying the causes and providing recommendations that can help minimise the fire risks of EVs. Meanwhile, the electric two-wheeler industry’s big players have recalled close to 7,000 units.
The loss of life is unacceptable, and consumer sentiment which has cooled off considerably in light of the fire incidents reflects this. The ability to address safety concerns around EVs will heavily determine public buy-in. EV manufacturers have long pointed to studies such as this to argue that li-ion batteries are by far the safest when it comes to mobility use-cases. The flurry of recent incidents though is a reminder that the equation is not quite so simplistic, but rather dependent on a range of conditions and quality parameters.
Preliminary reports of the probe into the incidents has presented a range of issues that caused the fires, all related to the battery. As reported by Reuters, the probe found issues with battery cells, modules, battery casing and battery management system as being behind the first reported incidents of fire. Some experts argue that these are just teething problems that will be ironed out in due course as the industry grows. But this will require filling in the current gaps in protocols across quality, testing and manufacturing. Government and industry players will also have to identify what they must do to ensure safety standards for EV batteries.
There have been reports of the government planning a battery policy that will cover not just testing and manufacturing standards, but also the heat resistance of these batteries. But the lack of clarity on when such a policy will be implemented is concerning. The government, however, has acknowledged that imported battery cells do not suit Indian conditions. And that’s the first step.
Where there is smoke, there is fire
India has put electric mobility under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid and) Electric Vehicles Phase II (FAME II). This scheme sets an ambitious target of 175 GW of power from renewable energy by 2022. The government wants 15% of vehicles to be electric by 2030. This includes electric two-wheelers making up 80% of all two-wheeler sales by the end of the decade. It is, therefore, in a race against time.
With such pressures, designing and manufacturing EV batteries for Indian roads is bound to be a challenge. According to professor Sagar Mitra of the Energy, Science and Engineering Dept of Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, “In India, knowledge about cell chemistry, battery pack, manufacturing and assembling is still low. For example, research on battery pack design is next to zero, which is such an integral part of battery production.” Mitra also pointed out that the stability of battery chemistries being used in India is questionable. A majority of the batteries use a composition of nickel-manganese-cobalt, which does not have the highest stability standards.
“The EV industry is definitely growing and many players are trying to play catch, but we need to invest in better knowledge, research and development for long term sustainability and safety,” Mitra added.
Rahul Lamba, CEO, The Energy Company, pointed to the lack of high-quality battery management systems (BMS) in Indian EVs, which are an integral fire safety feature. “Batteries are thermally stable up to a certain temperature, beyond which they risk going into a thermal runaway state. It is the BMS’s job to cut off this temperature rise to avoid overheating. Currently, in India’s EV industry, very few are developing their own BMS, but using them off the shelf. These need to be designed in tandem with other battery parts and customised for Indian circumstances.”
Rocky road ahead
India is unique in that it varies greatly in its temperature, geography and road conditions across regions. Testing standards, therefore, cannot be uniform and have to be designed in a way that makes EVs resilient in all conditions. Shreshth Mishra, co-founder, Simple Energy, said, “In so many instances, our two wheelers are overloaded beyond capacity with 3 to 4 riders, but this isn’t accounted for in testing. Testing and safety standards need to come from the OEMs as much as they should come from the government.”
Lamba points out other gaps in testing standards apart from the lack of customisation. “An important component of a battery is the connector. Currently there is no test that calls out the lifecycle of a connector used in the battery. In the majority of failure instances, the connector pins actually melt, and that’s the point where the first short circuit happens, which triggers the entire process towards thermal runaway.”
Indian roads also test the vibration thresholds of vehicles. Testing batteries’ ability to withstand intense vibrations is, therefore, a necessity. “We are not creating a real-world scenario in our labs when testing the impact of vibration on batteries. The intensity of the vibrations in a lab are much lower than what it would be outside when in the vehicle,” says Lamba.
In April this year, government think-tank Niti Aayog announced a draft of the battery swapping policy for electric vehicles. While it is low on details, it did highlight the government’s intentions to ensure rigorous testing for battery swapping. But does it touch upon the issue of fire safety adequately? Lamba says it is too early to ascertain this, and it will be known only once the final policy comes out. But the fear of fires during battery swapping and charging is real and has to be addressed. “Yes, there is a fear that when batteries are swapped there are higher chances of them catching fire. This is because multiple battery packs are stored in a substation and if one battery catches fire, it could spread to the others.” While there is some truth to this fear, Lamba said there is an easy solution to this problem.
Communication between the charger and the battery pack becomes key in this instance. So if a battery pack has a BMS that isn’t working, it should be able to communicate to the charger that its switches are malfunctioning so the charging needs to stop, says Lamba. “What is happening in a majority of the batteries out there in the market today is that they are not communicating with chargers. So the charger keeps pumping current inside the battery, which is why maximum fire incidents occur during charging,” Lamba says.
According to experts, in order to ensure high safety standards, manufacturing all battery components domestically is imperative. The government, on its part, has incentivised domestic battery manufacturing through its FAME II scheme. The push to localise India’s battery production has generated interest among Existing lead-acid cell makers, auto original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and energy companies looking to diversify their portfolio, according to recent statements by NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant.
While the industry might be bullish on the future of India’s advanced cell chemistry market, current rules provide ample space for deceptive accounting. “The sad reality is that many manufacturers are getting parts from China, rebranding them under an Indian supplier, and in this way meeting the FAME criteria of availing subsidy, but still not producing in-country. The government needs to be more aware of such mis-utilization,” explains Mitra. The case is ripe for India to start incorporating safety as a core principle while formulating policies around electric vehicle and battery manufacturing. In order to do so, the government will first have to clarify the conditions around cell manufacturing, battery assembly and battery management system design and their testing.
While the market might eventually price in the safety risks of inferior products, relying solely on this is a risky gamble that may result in several avoidable deaths and suppressed consumer sentiment for years to come. A quick resolution to these burning issues through clear policy interventions on the other hand, will not only help restore confidence in the industry but also provide domestic manufacturing a much needed boost.