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Battery fires are creating speed bumps for India's EV industry

The Sahu brothers at their home in Gurugram. An EV battery explosion last year injured three of them and killed their parents.  (Photo: Priyanka Parashar)Premium
The Sahu brothers at their home in Gurugram. An EV battery explosion last year injured three of them and killed their parents.  (Photo: Priyanka Parashar)

  • Lives are at risk as batteries explode, exposing the deep cracks in India’s electric two-wheeler journey
  • If the industry does not act and the government does not tighten regulations, many sub-standard vehicles could flood the market, threatening rider safety and public trust in EV technology.

NEW DELHI : Just after 10 pm on 16 December last year, 20-year-old Manoj Kumar Sahu returned home to the rented room he shared with his immigrant family from Darbhanga, Bihar. Sahu, an electric vehicle (EV) servicing technician, worked at HCD India’s cargo (logistics and delivery) electric two-wheeler factory in Gurugram. At 10.45 pm, he plugged in one of four lithium-ion EV batteries he had kept in the room to charge it. Soon after, the battery exploded. His father, a 60-year-old tea-stall owner, suffered burns and suffocated to death on the spot. Sahu’s mother succumbed a week later at New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. Sahu himself sustained burn injuries, as did his younger brothers Saroj (18) and Anuj (14).

HCD India founder and CEO Raghav Nanda confirmed to Mint that Sahu was an employee of the company and knew how to handle batteries safely. The company, however, denies culpability in the incident, claiming that it does not manufacture batteries and instead sources them from two vendors. No proof has been provided yet on whether the battery involved belonged to any of its vendors, HCD India said in a response.

Four months on, no company or vendor has taken responsibility for the battery explosion.

In January, a few weeks after the incident in the Sahu home, the staff at a Pure EV scooter dealership in Lalganj, Bihar, had a narrow escape. The owner of an EV made by the Hyderabad-based startup had taken his battery to the dealer, complaining that it was not delivering the promised driving range. A few hours later, it caught fire in the showroom. “Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but we were scared—the battery was not even being charged and there were a lot of flammable materials around," recounts Vivek Ranjan, owner of the Pure EV dealership. At least three instances of Pure EV scooters catching fire have surfaced since last year. Mint tried reaching out to the company for comment multiple times but is yet to get a response.

If switching to EVs is an inevitable step in India’s journey towards green mobility, it is critical that the ones being manufactured and sold in India are safe for mass adoption. That, however, does not seem to be the case at the moment. More than a dozen incidents of EV-related fires have been reported across the country since last year, with more than half of those reported this year alone. So far, the fires have claimed four lives. Four back-to-back reports of electric two-wheeler fires in March alone have heightened concerns about the safe development of the EV ecosystem in the country.

However, EV dealers Mint spoke to said demand continued to be healthy, and while there were a few cancellations, they were easily offset by new orders. In any case, EV manufacturers have a large order backlog due to a chip supply shortage.

Videos of electric two-wheelers on fire have gone viral on social media. In some cases, the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs )responsible for the scooters acknowledge the incidents, and in others, no explanation is offered. The EV scooters in these incidents have been made by various companies, including Ola, Okinawa Autotech, Pure EV, and Jitender EV.

After an Ola S1 pro from EV maker Ola Electric caught fire in Pune, the government sprang into action—it has ordered a central agency to probe the cause of fires involving the Ola scooter and an Okinawa Autotech scooter (which claimed two lives in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, on the same day). Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has said that if the probe found the manufacturers at fault, strict action would be taken against them.

Mint made multiple attempts to get a formal response from Ola Electric, without success. Okinawa, in its response to Mint, stated that its battery packs are made in India. They are tested and validated by government organizations, the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) and the International Centre for Automotive Technology (ICAT). Further, the company noted in a statement that it is educating customers about battery handling and management.

Okinawa has also announced a recall of over 3,000 units of its Praise Pro scooters, the first ever instance of a voluntary recall by an EV manufacturer in India. The company says it will check and repair batteries for loose connections and any other damage free of cost at its dealerships.

Ola Electric, however, will find it exceedingly difficult to execute a recall, should it make one—it does not have a physical sales network.

Battery woes

In a car or scooter powered by gasoline or diesel, fuel burns in an internal combustion engine to power the vehicle. An electric vehicle’s source of energy, however, is a battery, which powers an electric motor to produce motion. The most widely used EV battery is some sub-type of a lithium-ion battery, consisting of tens to even hundreds of cells held together in small clusters called modules. The modules are packed together along with a battery management system (BMS), which keeps an eye on the state of each cell, to form a battery ‘pack’.

It is therefore not just the quality of cells, but also the way they are packed together, and how the BMS works that determines the performance and safety of an electric vehicle.

Common notions such as batteries becoming unstable at high ambient temperatures, or the spike in EV fires coinciding with the onset of summer are not backed by scientific evidence, say experts. “99% of the time, an EV battery catches fire due to an internal or external short-circuit. A cell has two poles—a cathode (negative terminal) and an anode (positive terminal). When a cell is being used, the cathode and anode are connected in a controlled manner, through a motor, which regulates how much current can be drawn from each cell. But what happens if a cathode and anode touch accidentally? A short-circuit will take place and the temperature will rise to a few hundred degrees Celsius. You can’t heat a battery up to that temperature by just leaving it out in the sun," explains Arun Vinayak, founder, Exponent Energy, and former chief product officer at Ather Energy. Exponent Energy is developing fast-charging battery and charger technology for EVs.

“Fires can happen due to three things: a bad cell(s), a poorly designed battery, or a dysfunctional or completely non-existent BMS, which means the day-to-day management of cells is poor," Vinayak explains. “This can lead to an internal short-circuit within the cell. The other possibility is an external short circuit, which can be triggered by various external shocks".

A faulty cell can be identified in time with the help of an efficient BMS, which is essentially a software issue, he adds. The battery in an EV is really its nerve-centre and the BMS is its guiding force. Both have to work in sync on India’s varied geographical terrain to be safe.

The rush to market

Two-wheeler EV volumes in India are likely to touch close to 18 million units annually by 2030, a 24-fold jump from current volumes, according to a report by venture fund Blume Ventures. But in the rush to market in a highly competitive segment, some OEMs are cutting corners, which can set a dangerous precedent, experts note.

New electric two-wheeler players are emerging on the scene at a dizzying pace, enticed by a strong push towards the development of this sector by government policy and incentives, rising consumer demand, especially because of high fuel prices, and attractive opportunities to raise private capital.

Considering how an electric vehicle has far fewer moving parts and a much less complicated powertrain compared to a gasoline-run vehicle, many OEMs in India currently source completely knocked down (CKD) kits from China, Taiwan and South Korea, and assemble and distribute the vehicles locally, with little to no engineering effort.

Rakesh Sharma, executive director, Bajaj Auto, which manufactures the electric avatar of the iconic Chetak scooter, says there are three important things to keep in mind when it comes to EV technology, “The first is around responsible design. Energy management and heat management should be well-balanced so that it doesn’t try to extract a much higher performance that is not supported by the design. The second is sourcing; it is important to not go to untested vendors for the convenience of lower price or immediate availability. The third principle is testing and validation. There are multiple use cases of a product and it takes a long time to validate the robustness of the product under all these use cases on the field. A responsible OEM should be able to service 99% of these use cases," Sharma says.

“Many OEMs are buying battery packs and vehicle platforms from outside. These are not designed for the Indian environment. They are being put in large volumes on Indian roads… so we are seeing failures pop up," says Tarun Mehta, CEO, Ather Energy, an Indian electric two-wheeler company. “Petrol vehicle manufacturers didn’t and don’t need strict regulatory policing purely because their brand name will go up in flames if they put out a vehicle that spontaneously catches fire."

Mehta adds that Ather Energy has built a li-ion battery from the ground up specifically for Indian conditions. “We are in the fourth or fifth generation of our battery pack design."

Another common practice in India’s EV industry has been to import technology and localise manufacturing without investing in engineering the tech to suit the usage patterns and terrain in India. “For the last 10 or 15 years, EVs that were being imported were built for different climatic conditions, mostly first-world situations, where the kind of usage that happens on Indian roads is not expected. And when these vehicles are expected to work in India, there is very little additional safety added whatsoever. The result is the incidents we are seeing today," says Niraj Rajmohan, co-founder and CTO of Ultraviolette, a TVS-backed electric motorcycle startup.

Ultraviolette claims it has taken a cue from NASA while designing materials to safeguard its batteries.“NASA uses li-ion cells in the life support system for its astronauts and engineers their battery packs for safety under extreme conditions. We wanted to achieve the same objective. While NASA can use rare and expensive materials to achieve this, we use materials that are commonly available and affordable in India," says Rajmohan.

The need for regulation

Most cells are currently being imported and there is definitely a case for more stringent tests, says Randheer Singh, director, Niti Aayog. “But self-assessment also needs to be emphasised. The industry should not only comply with standards set by the government but also go beyond and act responsibly," he adds.

Every electric vehicle battery that is sold in India needs to be certified under AIS 038 or AIS 156 standards for battery safety under the Central Motor Vehicle Rules. A large number of EV batteries on the roads have been tested against the ageing AIS 038 standards, which will be phased out by the end of the year.

All new EVs will have to be compliant with the AIS 156 standards, which are one of the strictest in the world with respect to tests for mechanical, thermal and electrical abuse.

However, while any entity manufacturing the battery is required to obtain a certification, the certification itself doesn’t ensure all the batteries are consistent in quality.

“As companies rush products from factories and put them in the hands of consumers in a bid to quickly snag market-share, they are bypassing the need to get approvals the right way. You might clear your requirements at the outset, but is the vehicle tested for how it will perform after a few months of usage? These are issues that I don’t think are covered right now by the companies putting EVs out," says a senior executive at a homegrown EV company.

“For batteries that are imported into the country, we require that the li-ion cells should be high grade, but it is possible to exploit loopholes and import sub-standard cells," says another official, on condition of anonymity.

When such loopholes exist, the buck has to stop with the OEMs.

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