China’s ordering safety checks after a series of electric car fires

Taking a closer look.
Taking a closer look.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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A recent series of fires in China affecting prominent electric vehicle makers like Tesla and NIO has made authorities nervous—the last thing they want to see is people losing confidence in electric cars in an already slowing auto market.

Yesterday (June 17), China issued an order (link in Chinese) to electric car companies to carry out safety checks and submit reports to the authorities by the end of October. Companies should check for potential issues with the cars’ batteries and battery boxes, onboard charging facilities, waterproofing, high-voltage wiring harnesses, and other mechanical components, said the notice from a center under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which has oversight for electric vehicles. Cars already in use, particularly those used by taxi services, also need to be checked.

The order comes after the mainland and Hong Kong have seen at least five incidents of electric cars catching fire or emitting smoke in recent months. Just last week, one of NIO’s flagship luxury sports utility vehicle ES8 burst into flames in the city of Wuhan, in central China. In May, a parked ES8 emitted smoke in NIO’s home base of Shanghai, and a parked Tesla Model S also caught fire in Hong Kong. April saw a fire incident with an ES8 in the northern city Xian, while a video of a Model S exploding in a Shanghai parking lot spread widely on Chinese social media.

Electric minivans from BJEV, an EV maker linked to state-owned manufacturer BAIC, have also caught on fire several times this year. Last year, China recorded some 40 fire-related incidents.

Electric cars are no more prone (pdf, p.19) to fires than gasoline-powered cars, according to a 2017 report by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But as China pushes sales of electric cars and pursues longer range, the possibility of such incidents increases. Battery makers face the challenge of maintaining safety while increasing energy density—the amount of energy stored in the battery per kilogram (paywall).

NIO has sold more than 15,000 ES8s since September. It’s unclear how many cars Tesla sold last year but in 2017 it sold close to 18,000 cars, according to data from the government-backed China Passenger Car Association. Their cars made up a small fraction of the 1.25 million total sales in 2018 of new energy vehicles, which include battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

MIIT has listed requirements for how many vehicles need to be tested based on mileage. For taxis, ride-hailing cars, logistics vehicles, and buses, manufacturers should check at least 5% of vehicles that have traveled fewer than 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) to date. They have to check at least 10% of the vehicles that have traveled between 100,000 kilometers and 200,000 kilometers, and at least 20% of the EVs that have traveled than 200,000 kilometers. “For vehicle [types] with more battery malfunctions, carmakers should increase the ratio,” said the notice.

Manufacturers have such data about the cars they’ve sold because China set up a national platform to monitor electric cars in 2017. Apart from mileage, the platform collects data such as location, battery performance, charging time, and a charging heat map. There are 1.6 million EVs providing data to the platform.

For private cars, the notice asks companies to inform users when they should bring their cars back for safety checks. Carmakers should record what triggered the safety checks and how they have alerted customers.

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