Why are EVs catching fire in India?

Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave
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India’s electric vehicle (EV) enthusiasts are worried over incidents involving two-wheelers bursting into flames last month.

In fact, on March 31, an entire two-wheeler showroom in the state of Madhya Pradesh caught fire.

The outlet is of Ghaziabad-based EV maker e-Ashwa Automotive’s vehicles. The company blamed a short circuit at the showroom for the accident, but that hasn’t helped soothe customers’ frayed nerves this scorching summer.

Is the Indian summer causing EV fires?

These recent accidents have all been reported from Indian cities where temperatures have been rising. Yet, blaming the weather is wrong, according to experts who, instead, prefer looking more closely at how a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery is packed and designed.

“Thermal management and battery construction play a huge role in battery stability,” said Sunil Bansal, co-founder and managing director at iVOOMi Energy, an electric two-wheeler maker based out of Delhi.

Others echo the view, warning against inefficiently designed products.

“Common misconceptions such as the Indian summers and poor thermal management being the reason for (outbreaks of) fire are not true,” said a recent blog post by Exponent Energy, an EV tech startup. “The recent fires you see are a result of thermal runaway.”

Thermal runaway is the process of the battery heating up, accelerated by that same increase in heat, ultimately resulting in an uncontrollable temperature spike. This can destroy the battery and, in severe cases, also end in a fire.

Exponent Energy said that li-ion cells need to hit a few hundred degrees celsius before having a thermal runaway incident.

“Most modern batteries automatically switch off around 45-55°C. And even if these thermal-based safety precautions don’t kick in, you won’t see a thermal runaway (fire) because batteries cannot heat themselves up by a few hundred degrees celsius under normal operations,” it said.

The company explained that a battery with a bad thermal design could experience a temperature rise of up to 30°C above that of the vehicle’s immediate surroundings.

Impact on India’s EV sector

EV players are now battling myths and fake news.

“In the day and age of viral internet media spread, misunderstandings can negatively affect the future of EVs and the precious green revolution which is beneficial for the nation,” said Bansal of iVOOMi Energy.

The industry, however, is confident of surviving such pessimism, especially with investments from big players like Reliance Industries.

The numbers are also in industry’s favour. For instance, while EVs constitute only 1% of the total Indian automobile sales, the three-wheeler segment is now driven mainly by them.