Why electric scooters catch fire in India

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NEW DELHI – The demand for electric scooters increased in India. Then they started to catch fire.

A series of recent battery fires in electric scooters, some of them fatal, have sparked recalls and alarmed buyers – and risk derailing the country’s ambitious climate agenda.

More than 90 percent of vehicles in India are powered by petrol or diesel. How the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases manages the transition to electric vehicles will be a factor in fulfilling its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2070.

If the safety issues aren’t resolved and people start to lose faith in the technology, “it could certainly be a big spoke in the wheel of overall decarbonization plans,” said Karthik Ganesan, a fellow at the Delhi-based Council. on energy, the environment and water.

Can India map out a low-carbon future? The world can depend on it.

An 80-year-old man in the southern state of Telangana died in late April after a battery exploded while charging in his house; four other people were injured. A similar incident days later in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh killed a 40-year-old man and injured several family members.

Videos of Electric Scooters Catching fire has gone viral on social media, leading to a government investigation and multiple recalls, casting a shadow over an industry that had experienced rapid growth.

Scooters, whether powered by fuel or electricity, are the most popular form of transport in India, from the busy cities to the rural back roads. As fuel prices skyrocket, e-vehicle manufacturers are cashing in.

Most purchases of large electric scooter models are booked months in advance. The country’s largest scooter and motorcycle manufacturer, Hero MotoCorp, is launching an e-scooter this year and investing tens of millions of dollars in technology. Domestic ride-sharing company Ola announced in 2021 that it would produce 10 million electric two-wheelers each year.

But Ola had to recall more than 1,400 vehicles last month after one of his scooters went up in flames while parked next to a road in the city of Pune.

In a statement to The Washington Post, the company said the recalled scooters will undergo a “thorough diagnosis of all battery systems, thermal systems and the safety systems.”

Two other companies — Pure EV and Okinawa — together more than 5,000 scooters recalled after fires. The companies did not respond to a request for comment.

India’s problems are not unique. France took dozens of electric buses off the road last month after two fire incidents. Last year, US auto giant General Motors recalled about 142,000 electric cars from Chevrolet Bolt over concerns about battery fires.

Fewer vehicles have been recalled in India, but consumers have noticed. A recent survey shows that 17 percent of people said they would not buy an electric scooter due to safety and performance concerns – an eightfold increase from six months ago.

“Customers who walk in are asking questions about safety,” said Nikhil Chaudhary, who owns an electric scooter showroom in Haryana, near Delhi. “It’s a new technology and people are concerned.”

Experts say that a short circuit in the cells that make up a vehicle battery is usually responsible for fires. A short circuit can lead to an uncontrolled power surge, causing battery cells to heat up to more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many companies import cheap batteries — mostly from China — without testing them, says Vivekananda Hallekere, CEO and co-founder of Bounce, a recently launched electric scooter brand. In some cases, he said, the battery management system, which basically acts as the battery’s brain, may not be doing its job.

Hallekere’s company allows customers to swap out a used battery for a charged one, so people don’t have to charge at home.

Batteries catching fire is “essentially a matter of quality,” said Ravneet Phokela, chief business officer of Ather Energy, an e-scooter brand available in more than 30 cities in India. “The batteries are either of poor quality or poorly assembled and not adapted to the local conditions.”

Some have speculated that this year’s scorching heat is causing batteries to explode, but experts say that’s unlikely. High temperatures can affect battery life and performance, they agreed, but don’t cause a fire.

An initial government investigation found “defective battery cells and modules” as the likely cause of the fires, according to a Reuters report last week.

GM announced this plant as a model for the future of its electric car. Then the batteries started to explode.

Some companies seemed to be cutting back on research and development, said Sohinder Gill, a spokesperson for the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles and CEO of Hero Electric. “In a rush to reach the market, they jump from development stage to sales. Not enough trials are being done.”

India is still lagging behind much of the world in electrification, but is trying to make up for lost time by offering subsidies to new buyers. According to a recent report, less than 3 percent of all new vehicles sold between April 2021 and March 2022 were electric, but that represented a 200 percent increase from the previous year.

The government has said it wants electric vehicles to make up at least 30 percent of sales by 2030. That would cut greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 4 percent, according to a 2020 report from the Council for Energy, Environment and Water. Carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions would each fall by more than 15 percent.

India’s transport sector accounts for only about a tenth of total emissions, compared to more than a quarter in the United States, where it is the largest contributor.

“Two-wheelers are actually a low-hanging fruit as far as India is concerned,” said Karthik Ganesan, one of the authors of the emissions report.

To make electric scooters part of India’s green future, he said, companies urgently need to tackle battery fires and restore public confidence.

“Ultimately, people will not wait for the industry to get its act together,” he said. “But I don’t think this is a problem that can’t be solved.”

Anant Gupta contributed to this report.

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