In the recent few days, the Indian EV industry has been shaken by several fire incidents involving electric scooters from various manufacturers. While the consumer sentiments towards EVs have been hurt by these electric vehicle fires. But, are electric vehicles really more prone to fire risk than ICE vehicles?
Where there is fire, there is bound to be some smoke. However, fires around electric vehicles (EVs) are grabbing the headlines which seem more to be a case of smoke and mirrors. In which case it is wiser to turn to data to unravel the mystery of vehicle fires. According to a recent report from the U.S. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), vehicle fires accounted for 15% of the 1.4 million fires that took place in the US in 2020, and those fires contributed to 18% of civilian deaths and 11% of the civilian injuries. Electric vehicle fires? About 0.02% of the US fire total. It appears that Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs) are more prone to catching fire.
Smoke & mirrors
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted another research, data from which revealed that after 41 fatal collisions involving BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles), only 1 caught on fire (2.44%). The NTSB data further reported that after 20,315 fatal collisions involving gasoline vehicles, 644 caught fire (3.17%), and after 543 fatal collisions involving gasoline hybrid vehicles, 12 caught fire (2.21%).
Across the Atlantic, in the United Kingdom (U.K.) research results on automobile fires are quite similar. These indicate that the risk of fire for all types of electric vehicles remains less likely than for ICE vehicles. It should be noted that the usable data only goes back five years and even now the number of electric vehicles on the roads still represents a very small sample size. This is also reflected in the safety testing conducted in the U.K. on behalf of Euro NCAP (New Car Assessment Program), where despite the robust impacts to the front and particularly the sides of the vehicle where the battery is most vulnerable, there have been no resultant thermal events.
Too early to judge
A recent fire in a ship transporting electric vehicles seems to have ignited this ruckus over electric vehicles being more combustible. The vessel, Felicity Ace, a car transporter ship, delivered about 4000 Volkswagens. probably including battery-electric Porsche Taycans, Audi e-Tron and VW ID.4s, from Europe to the U.S. caught fire and later sank, apparently by a spontaneous lithium-ion battery fire. VW warned against a rush to judgment.
In India, the media has been playing up incidents of e-scooters catching fire. There have been at least four reported incidents of two-wheeler electric vehicles — made by the likes of Ola, Okinawa and Pure EV — abruptly bursting into flames, bringing to the fore safety issues related to such vehicles, especially the batteries that power them. The actual reasons behind these electric vehicles catching fire are currently unknown as the companies have said they are investigating the matter. However, Okinawa said that from its preliminary observations, based on “credible sources, the media and local authorities”, the fire in its scooter was a result of short-circuiting due to “negligence in charging the vehicle”.
India adopting high safety norms
India has the world’s stringent testing standard, AIS 156, which includes the fire resistance test where the battery is subject to a direct and indirect flame for over two minutes. The country is also working with the United Nations on the new R136 standard and testing of batteries, which might be adopted soon.
Govt supports greater EV adoption
In response to a question in the Parliament, the Union Roads & Transport Minister, Mr Nitin Gadkari, informed that as of March 25, as many as 1076420 electric vehicles were registered in the country and 1,742 public charging stations (PCS) were operational. The government has ordered a forensic investigation into each of the individual events from experts of the Centre for Fire Explosive, DRDO and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru.
Nevertheless, the government is keen to push for higher adoption of electric vehicles in India given the obvious benefits in reducing pollution and fuel imports. The government’s think-tank Niti Aayog is expected to roll out a battery swapping policy in the next four months, which could play a key role in enabling the electric vehicle industry to reach a critical scale.
The uproar over electric vehicles catching fire nevertheless evoked a sardonic response from Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, when he responded to a Twitter user posting about Tesla’s electric vehicles supposedly being less likely to catch on fire than the average car, Musk responded, “Not super surprising, given that internal combustion engine cars literally have ‘combustion’ in the name.”
(Abhijit Roy is a technology explainer and business journalist. He has worked with Strait Times of Singapore, Business Today, Economic Times and The Telegraph. Also worked with PwC, IBM, Wipro, Ericsson.)
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