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Topic of the Week: Battery safety, electric scooter fires across India, the impact of hot weather, and more.
Simran Kaur
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Ghostrider always had his own fanbase, but one of us, actually turning into one. Oh my god! NO!

At least four documented incidences of two-wheeler electric vehicles — manufactured by Ola, Okinawa, and Pure EV — bursting into flames in the previous week have brought to light safety concerns about such vehicles, particularly the batteries that power them.

Addressing the concerns:

I’m An EV Owner, Should I Prepare myself for Electric Shock, or in the worst-case scenario FIRE?

To be precise, EVs are designed with the intention of being safe, both for the environment and for their users. Though it's worth noting that EVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries similar to those used in smartphones and smartwatches, which are typically believed to be more efficient and lightweight than their gasoline-fueled counterparts.

Lithium-ion batteries: what are they and how do they function?

Lithium-ion batteries power millions of consumer electronics worldwide, from electric automobiles to smartphones and laptops. It has an anode, a cathode, a separator, an electrolyte, and two collectors. The anode and cathode store lithium, while the electrolyte transports positively charged lithium ions from one to the other via the separator. A charge is created at the positive current collector as the lithium ions migrate.

The advantages of Li-ion batteries over other types include their lightweight, high energy density, and rechargeability. Li-ion batteries also have a longer lifespan than lead-acid batteries.

A Li-ion battery can store 150 watt-hours per kg vs a lead-acid battery's 25 watt-hours per kg. In simple terms, Li-ion batteries are more efficient than other battery types while maintaining a small form factor, allowing for longer battery life and longer driving range for electric cars and smartphones.

However, one of Li-ion batteries' main advantages — high energy density — may also be its undoing. Due to their high energy density, Li-ion batteries can become unstable under certain situations, affecting their operation. They operate optimally within a safe range. A Li-ion battery's safety is ensured by a battery management system (BMS).

Wait, What are battery management systems?

A BMS is an electrical system that constantly monitors the voltage and current of all the cells in a Li-ion battery pack. A BMS also has a variety of temperature sensors that provide data on the battery pack's temperature. Therefore the BMS can determine battery pack parameters like charging and discharging rate, battery life cycle, and efficiency.

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So why did the EV batteries catch fire?

Both Ola and Okinawa have stated that they are investigating the cause of the fires. According to Okinawa, the fire in its scooter was caused by a short circuit owing to "negligence in charging".

These instances also serve as a cautionary reminder of the repercussions of Li-ion battery pack malfunctions. Experts say these batteries could catch fire due to manufacturing flaws, external damage, or deployment errors in the BMS.

Temperature, on the other hand, is a problematic factor in Li-ion battery packs. “While Li-ion batteries normally perform better in warmer conditions, really hot temperatures can cause the battery pack's ambient temperature to rise to 90-100 degrees, increasing the risk of fire,” an alleged EV company representative claimed.

Also, EVs and electronic devices have hundreds of batteries in a battery pack. Because a battery pack is tightly packed with Li-ion cells, even a few malfunctioning batteries can spark a chain reaction resulting in a fire. This process, known as thermal runway, is why Li-ion batteries spontaneously combust.

Aside from that, earlier vehicle accidents can harm the battery pack, causing it to catch fire after a few cycles of charging.

Tarun Mehta, creator of Ather Energy, claimed in a media interview that manufacturers are not spending enough time to design products and that government testing standards may not be enough to test all real-life conditions accurately.

So far, what has been done?

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has requested an investigation into the vehicles catching fire suddenly, and has contacted the Centre for Fire Explosive and Environment Safety (CFEES) to assist.

So EV’s aren’t a safer alternative anymore?

Electric Vehicles were always safe, will always be. While e2W and EV teething issues are likely to linger until full-proof solutions and technologies develop, it's worth noting that ICE vehicles are also frequently set ablaze, and single incidences, even if repeated, shouldn't be used to indict an entire vehicle industry.

With the rising hype arounds EVs, its safe to say that all e2W manufacturers will arise and tout the superiority of their battery cells, the efficiency of their battery management systems, and the rigors testing they undergo. Many are also using this opportunity to emphasize how cautious one must be in the EV-making sector, which necessitates additional brand tests.

A safe scooter requires high-quality lithium-ion cells, well-packaged and well-spaced cells, and a sophisticated Battery Management System (whose efficacy buyers cannot immediately evaluate). A scooter is safe even if one of these ingredients is missing, but two or more variables go wrong and cause a fire. Customer-facing openness and globally recognised quality and safety seals would be required.

For now, clients must rely their purchasing decisions not just on price, but also on the track record of a few EV manufacturers. Many brands have lasted many an Indian summer without incident, indicating that well-engineered EVs may be as safe as fossil-fuel driven ones if not better.

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