E-scooters have been all the rage in India lately — but they’re now triggering rage of a different kind.
On March 26, a video of a black Ola e-scooter engulfed in plumes of smoke and fire went viral on social media. The same day, another fatal fire involving a battery-powered Okinawa scooter reportedly killed a father and a child in Tamil Nadu. These are among at least six instances of e-scooters catching fire reported in the past six months. The trend is raising alarm over battery safety and weighing on early adopters.
“Why are you sending this wheeled bomb to us which can explode any moment. What did we as Indian consumers do to you? Please Ola don’t do this to us,” Ibin Issac, who had pre-booked an Ola S1 in September 2021, tweeted soon after watching the viral videos. Issac, who is a new parent, told me that he’s scared for his family’s safety and has been trying to cancel his S1 booking for a week.
While investigations into the cause of these fires are underway, experts point out that the reasons could be short circuits in batteries, which are caused due to poor-quality cells or inept battery management systems — programs that are supposed to monitor the health of the batteries. Substandard mechanical packing of the batteries can also trigger short circuits, especially when that battery is violently shaken on Indian roads.
The most prominent reason for these fires could be the improper use of imported Chinese battery cells without optimizing them for India’s hot climatic conditions, Somesh Kumar, power and utilities leader at consultancy Ernst & Young said. The use of imported batteries requires intricate soldering and custom-shaped casing.
But summer heat peaks causing battery fires is a misconception, according to Arun Vinayak, cofounder of Exponent Energy, which builds 15-minute fast-chargers for commercial vehicles. He said ambient temperatures don’t cause battery temperatures to rise, as most batteries have a thermal cutoff, which prevents overheating. The probable cause of fires in most cases is software or hardware failures in the battery management system.
The spate of scooter explosions has caused the Indian government to take stock, and a team of scientists is investigating the matter. There is growing momentum to recall faulty e-scooters in India to ensure rider safety. Globally, battery fire risks caused General Motors to recall 100,000 cars, and Hyundai to recall 82,000 cars in 2021.
The bottom line is that Indian manufacturers ought to beef up their battery testing capabilities. Kumar of EY said battery tests are still benchmarked toward European or Chinese standards, and manufacturers should start accounting for India’s humid climatic conditions to avoid future fires. As the classic automotive saying goes: You need better brakes to go faster. Electric vehicles require better testing for faster adoption, to achieve our climate goals.