Investing in testing and R&D and manufacturing in India is an immediate need

India’s spate of EV fires over the last two years has raised a great deal of concern amongst both the EV dealerships and customers. Some surveys show that consumers now rank battery safety as a higher barrier to EV adoption than high upfront cost and lack of charging infrastructure. Given that India is still in the early stages of its e-mobility growth, it cannot risk this falling consumer confidence in electric vehicles. Therefore it’s important to understand the underlying causes of these EV fires and the critical responsibility of automakers to prevent them.

The e-mobility industry must step up its R&D and testing to improve battery safety

The Indian government appointed panel in July 2022 investigated the EV fires and found the following:

  • Deficient or non-functional battery management systems (BMS): It was reported that most EV models on sale did not have BMSs that had competent software to detect, isolate and prevent the battery packs from catching on fire.
  • Absence of venting mechanisms: Most EV battery packs lacked proper venting mechanisms to allow for the overheated cells or modules to release heat.
  • Inferior quality cells: Indian automakers use batteries that are primarily manufactured in China, but their lower cost also comes with inferior quality cells that hold a greater risk of thermal runaway.

Nearly 80% of the electric two wheeler market in India is dominated by startups. We have more than 90 e-2w manufacturers and over 250 e-3w manufacturers. Given the market pressures, each is vying for a share in the EV segment by competing against price and faster turnaround time to reach market and ensure product delivery. This is leading to oversight in the safety of the vehicle, and exposing them to the risk of bursting into flames.

Fig 1 – The rise in electric two wheeler battery fires has highlighted gaps in the EV industry’s testing and research and development

What manufacturers can do to improve battery safety

To permanently root out the risk of fires, the onus lies on the EV manufacturers. They must adopt all or at least several of the following solutions:

  • Manufacture EV batteries in the country: According to a study by CEEW, India’s EV automotive industry requires an estimated annual battery capacity of 158 GWh by 2030. This reflects the urgent need for India to double up its efforts to build ACC manufacturing capacity, which is currently very low. A step in the right direction is the central government’s Production Linked Incentive with a budget outlay of Rs 18,000 crore to encourage companies to produce ACC batteries in the country. Manufacturers need to invest in research and development for better quality Advance Chemistry Cells, battery pack designs, battery management systems and the connectors, which all play a crucial role in ensuring battery safety.
  • Use of quality cells, if imported: China’s BYD introduced its Blade line of fire- and puncture-resistant batteries in 2020. Their cost is higher than most li-ion batteries but incorporating them into Indian EVs, or for the automakers to come up with local substitutes will be an important first step.
  • Shielding battery packs: Certain EV manufacturers are taking measures against battery packs being punctured by rocks or sharp objects underneath the car by adding a metal plate that shields the underside of the pack. The metal plates tend to be quarter-inch thick and would be ideally suited to Indian EVs as the country's roads are often littered with pebbles and shards of metal.
  • Transitioning to solid state batteries: Most commercial-grade EV batteries have liquid electrolytes that can ooze out when the casing is punctured, and cause a short circuit. The alternative being explored is solid-state batteries that employ a ceramic-based (solid) electrolyte. The substance is fire-averse and has higher energy density, which makes it ideal in terms of safety and to lower the space occupied on-board. Globally Toyota and Honda are each planning to unveil EVs with these batteries within the decade, which is a good opportunity for Indian manufacturers to invest in the technology and leapfrog its introduction in India.

Two other promising developments are dual chemistry batteries and an innovative BMS that uses a heat-redistributing fluid. The former is in development by Gemini (California) and uses 20% less lithium and 60% less graphite, while promising twice the range of contemporary li-ion batteries. Μeanwhile, the latter comes from a startup in India and the liquid that covers every cell of an EV battery pack to absorb and instantly redistribute excess heat away from a malfunctioning cell. The system is supported by a machine learning-enabled BMS that constantly monitors every cell’s heat and performance to predict any possibility of a fire.

These changes are essential as EVs will inevitably garner a growing share. That India’s EV sales have posted more than 200% year-on-year growth despite the fires should encourage automakers to invest strongly in R&D and financing options, so that even if the cost of a fire-proof EV is marginally higher, a potential buyer will still be able to purchase one.

How EV fires fare against ICE

Statistically, EV fires are miniscule in frequency when compared to ICE vehicles, as a study found that the latter reported (on average) 1530 fires per 100,000 units — through short circuits and gasoline explosions — vs. a mere 25.1 fires per 100,000 EVs. Incidentally the worst fire offenders were hybrids, which reported 3,475 incidents per 100,000 units.

The problem with EV fires, though, is their intensity and duration. ICE vehicles are at a major risk from the on-board gasoline that can ignite due to vehicle collisions, short circuits and sparks and static in close proximity to the fuel. But these fires can be put out relatively quickly with water or flame retardants. On the other hand, since a large number of EVs use li-ion battery packs, their fires are electrical and are difficult to put out. In fact, even after 24 hours, the always non-zero fire risk li-ion battery pack may retain enough heat to trigger an unprovoked re-ignition.

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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.