The electric vehicle industry is still being confronted with battery fires in electric cars, scooters and buses. Lithium batteries can reach 2700 degrees Celsius while burning, making them difficult to contain and to extinguish. The most recent battery fires are in Paris and India. In Paris, two electric buses had their batteries catch fire, causing the fleet of buses by the manufacturer Bollore to be temporarily suspended. In India, electric scooter battery fires documented on social media have even caused some deaths and many electric scooters being recalled. Before these occurrences, Chevrolet recalled its entire fleet of Bolts due to battery fires, at a cost of $1.8 billion. Tesla, too, has had a number of battery fires.
Paris Temporarily Suspends an Electric Bus Fleet
After two electric buses caught on fire in Paris, authorities suspended a fleet of 149 electric buses temporarily ‘as a precaution.’ The buses were Bluebus 5SE model made by manufacturer Bollore. The second bus that caught fire occurred on April 29th in southeast Paris and released thick clouds of black smoke and a strong smell of burning plastic. The fire was put out by around 30 firefighters after the passengers were evacuated. The first fire occurred over 3 weeks earlier, destroying the vehicle but causing no injuries. According to the company, the buses are “fitted with a new generation of batteries… with high energy density and optimal safety” spread around the roof and rear of the vehicle.
Bluebus is part of Vincent Bollore’s empire, whose interests range from transport and logistics to media, generating around 24 billion euros ($25 billion) per year with 80,000 employees. Bollore’s 12-meter (39-foot) electric buses are frequently seen on the streets of Paris, with the words “100 percent electric vehicle” written on them. Public transport operator RATP, which runs one of the busiest public transport networks in Europe, has 500 electric buses in its fleet of 4,700 vehicles. The RATP’s electric buses are supplied by: Bollore Bluebus, Alstom and CNH’s Heuliez Bus.
Electric Scooters in Flames in India
Indians have become wary of electric vehicles as the number of electric scooters captured on fire have increased. Social media contains videos of battery-powered scooters in flames. In March, a father and daughter died from smoke inhalation after their brand-new bike from Okinawa Autotech Pvt caught fire while it was charging overnight at home. In another video, an Ola Electric Mobility Pvt scooter burned in Pune in the country’s west, while in another, about 40 two-wheelers made by Jitendra EV are aflame as they are transported in a container.
The number of people in India who said they would not buy an electric scooter due to safety and performance concerns jumped eightfold to 17 percent in the seven months through March. The survey included about 11,500 consumers. The survey also found that just 2 percent of people are likely to buy an electric scooter in the coming six months.
India, the world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is trying to get more electric vehicles on its roads. But, many consumers are reluctant to make the switch from combustion engine cars and motorcycles due to the high upfront cost of electric vehicles and the country’s lack of charging stations, making it increasingly difficult for India to catch up to China that is making progress toward electrifying its transport fleet. About 77 percent of annual passenger vehicle sales in China are expected to be electric by 2040, versus just 53 percent in India.
Another concern is that the electric scooters are not designed for India’s extreme heat — temperatures routinely soar to 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) in the capital New Delhi — or its infrastructure. India’s roads are potholed, causing suspension problems. India is currently dependent on imports for most of its electric vehicle components, which originate in China, so automakers, which assemble the parts, do not have control over the quality or reliability of their products.
India’s nascent electric vehicle market is flooded with startups that have rushed electric scooters to market without going through the rigor of testing under a wide variety of weather conditions. The startups are under pressure to meet investor expectations, to reduce time to market and to manage stakeholder perceptions without fully building in the capabilities in product development and manufacturing. Startups, as well as established automakers, need to consistently demonstrate safety and reliability of their products.
Ola is examining the cause of the accidents and will recall 1,441 scooters following an investigation into the vehicle fires. Okinawa had recalled 3,215 units of its PraisePro electric scooters to fix battery-related issues, checking for loose battery connectors. Okinawa, India’s second-biggest electric two-wheeler maker, blamed the fire on user negligence, saying the blaze was due to a short circuit that resulted from improper charging. The Indian government has pledged to adopt new standards to tackle the fires, which may be caused due to thermal inefficiencies in lithium-ion batteries and exacerbated by hot weather.
Other Battery Fire Incidents
Paris and India are not the only electric vehicle markets to have experienced battery fires. Crashes damaged the batteries of several Tesla cars and General Motors recalled its Chevrolet Bolts after some went up in flames while parked in garages or driveways. Hyundai Motor had a recall following fires in 15 of its Kona electric vehicles.
A cargo ship, the Felicity Ace, with about 4,000 vehicles aboard, including electric vehicles, caught fire in the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the Felicity Ace did sink to the bottom of the ocean while it was being towed about 250 miles from the Azores Islands despite a salvage team having extinguished the flames before it descended. According to the New York Daily News, “The ship could have held more than 2,000 tons of fuel, 2,000 tons of oil, and nearly 19,000 tons of cargo, including the lithium batteries.” In the wake of this incident and four other incidents of electric vehicles on ships catching fire since 2019, some carriers have suspended the transport of used electric vehicles.
Because of the way electric vehicles are powered, when the cars get into serious accidents or heat and infrastructure affect their battery operation, their damaged energy cells trigger longer burning fires, taking many fire fighters hours to respond. Firefighters had to use 40 times the amount of water normally needed to contain a fire of a gasoline-powered vehicle when a Tesla electric vehicle crashed. Further, when shortcuts are taken in electric vehicle development, consumers can be exposed to potential unmitigated safety issues as India has found. With the speed of countries mandating a zero carbon economy, safety and reliability problems can abound. That is particularly true in India, a country of some 1.4 billion where around 231,000 electric scooters were sold in the 12 months through March and where social media has documented battery fires and even deaths from them.