Another e-scooter catches fire killing 8! Is India’s e-mobility vision going up in flames?

With India's EV demand still in its infancy, will the frequency of such accidents harm the country's green ambitions?

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Tuesday, September 13, 2022, 08:39 PM IST
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Electric scooters have been catching fire at an alarming rate across India. | FP

Keeping up with the world’s pace, India is also zooming ahead towards electric mobility, with more than one million motorists already owning an electric vehicle. Electric cars may be considered costly, but e-scooters accounted for 3.6 per cent of total two-wheeler sales in India for the first half of 2022. Although it has little over 1500 charging stations to cater to a rising number of electric scooters, ICRA says that 48,000 more will be set up over the next four years with an investment of Rs 14,000 crore.

But the presence of a strong charging infrastructure across India is a challenge that can be addressed in time, while safety of electric scooters remains an immediate concern. The incident of an e-scooter catching fire in Secunderabad, and causing the death of eight people, has once again highlighted the alarming consequences of technical flaws. The fire spread from an EV showroom on the ground floor, and spread to a hotel upstairs where 25 guests were staying. So far, overcharging is said to be the reason behind this disaster.

More than isolated incidents

Although it sounds bizarre, this is no freak accident, simply because of the frequency of electric scooters going up in flames across India over the past year. Earlier this year, a father-daughter duo in Tamil Nadu died when an e-scooter exploded due to overcharging. The biggest such incident was reported from Nashik, where 20 e-scooters of a firm Jitendra EV were burnt to ashes in a container.

Ola had to recall more than 1400 of its newly launched e-scooters, after repeated incidents of its EVs catching fire, and while it said that accidents were rare, Ola couldn’t guarantee that it won’t happen in future. The fires threaten to burn India’s ambitions of going green, but the frequency also indicates a fundamental technical flaw.

Efficiency over safety?

Remember instances of smartphones exploding in people’s faces while they were on a call or just catching fire while they were being charged? Well they had a component called Lithium Ion or Li-ion batteries, which are also found in most devices that we use such as smartphones and also electric vehicles. Being lightweight, having a longer lifespan and being able to store more power than acid batteries, makes Li-ion batteries ideal for EVs. But the efficiency they offer in an eco-friendly world, doesn’t necessarily ensure high standards of safety.

Li-ion batteries can store 150 watts-hour per kg, which means it has high energy density and can last longer. But this also means that cells in these batteries are more likely to become unstable under certain conditions. Although Li-ion batteries can withstand warm temperatures, the ambient temperatures can reach 90-100 degrees when mercury rises in Indian cities, and that creates the risk of a fire. While Okinawa blames negligence in charging for a short circuit that led to their scooters going up in flames, could the firm have prevented it?
Whose negligence?

The answer is in a mechanism called the battery management system, which has to be integrated correctly to prevent overcharging. These electronic systems connected to Li-ion battery packs measure the voltage and flow of the current regularly. This BMS also includes temperature sensors, which provides information about heating in different parts of the battery pack. Incorrect integration of the BMS with battery packs, is also a possible reason for the frequent fires.

With the demand for EVs still in a nascent stage and only 2% of Indians open to buying electric scooters, such incidents can slow down the progress of India’s electric mobility plans.

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