By: Sheetal Bahl, MD and Partner at growX Ventures.
Electric vehicle (EV) sales have been on the rise over last few years in India, thanks to multiple new start-ups foraying into the industry with new product launches and a sustained push from the government to create a conducive ecosystem for the growth of electric mobility. Even existing auto majors have jumped into the fray and started launching vehicles across the two- and four-wheeler categories. Investments in this space – both from VCs (Venture Capitalist) and industry have increased manifold in the last couple of years. The recent spate of battery fires, especially in electric two-wheelers, however, have cast a shadow on this promising growth and undone some of the good achieved thus far. If safety is left unaddressed, customers will lose faith in EVs and a much-needed industry could suffer interminable damage.
The underlying issue of these incidents is not a mystery. Years of research in Lithium-ion batteries have made the root cause of battery fires fairly evident: overusing the batteries without any safety cut-off points. Most of the cases of fires can be attributed to overcharging/ over-discharging the batteries and lack of thermal management in the battery modules that lead to thermal runaways and eventual explosions and fires.
Thermal runaway starts with a particular cell or group of cells releasing enormous energy out of their structures. This could be caused by various reasons ranging from wrong cell selection, mechanical failures, external/internal short circuits, overcharging or over-discharging and lack of thermal management in batteries among others. The concept of thermal runaway is not new, nor is the fact that Indian climate is extreme and temperatures during summers cross 45deg Celsius in many Indian cities. This simply highlights the state of unsafe products being rolled out into the market. Newer technologies such as this, especially in the automotive industry require research and development efforts followed by diligent testing and validation in representative conditions and this takes time. The incidents coming into light in the market are results of companies cutting down on testing and development time to rollout products quickly.
The good news is that solutions to these issues already exist, and several companies have successfully built battery technology to solve these issues right at the design stage. These manufacturers have developed and deployed smart battery packs with integrated thermal management systems that have been tested in representative Indian conditions and have been certified with AIS-156, the current EV battery testing standard in India which is on par with those followed globally.
It should also be noted that several international automotive marques, along with domestic ones, are successfully selling their electric four-wheelers in the country without the kind of untoward incidents that are being seen with the two-wheelers, demonstrating that with adequate attention to research and development such incidents are entirely avoidable.
The government of India has reacted swiftly and ordered an investigation into these incidents, and several companies have done large-scale recalls to solve these issues and prevent more damage to life and property. The government is also working on formulating further norms to ensure that adequate attention to quality control is paid by battery manufacturers.
For electric mobility to proliferate across the length and breadth of the country, the consumers need to feel safe and secure in using these vehicles. OEM manufacturers must ensure that only such high-quality batteries go into their products that the safety of the general public is not compromised and the momentum of the transition towards electric mobility is not hindered by such unfortunate incidents.
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