How safe are electric scooters? - India Renewable Energy Consulting – Solar, Biomass, Wind, Cleantech
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The recent spate of eletric vehicle (especially scooter) battery fires has every EV user and prospective user wondering if electric vehicles are as safe as they are promoted to be.

Having consulted for the electric mobility sector for over five years, and having had the fortune of interacting with a diverse set of stakeholders – right from a junior engineer to CEOs and senior policy makers – I can share some key insights and take aways.

To a very large extent, what differentiates an electric vehicle from a conventional vehicle are the battery and the motor. Pretty much all the other differences are just commentary.

Neither the battery, nor the motor is a new, untested product – the electric motor is over 100 years old, and even Li-ion batteries are over 30 years old (the first commercial Li-ion battery release was in 1991 by Sony and Ashi Kasei). 

Both these are well tested, reliable technologies. So reliable that we use these technologies in many aspects of our daily lives – the motors in our pumps, in fans, in elevators, and batteries in our laptops and smartphones. 

Surely, none of these – especially the battery operated ones – are exploding often? 

The most frequent cause of battery fires is thermal runaway, a difficult-to-stop chain reaction within a battery cell which occurs when the temperature inside a battery reaches a high point that sets off cascading chemical reactions.

Good quality aattery makers and developers of battery management systems (the software that controls many battery operations) already ensure that batteries shut down when the temperatures inside reach a certain limit, thereby dramatically minimizing thermal runaways. 

Well now, that’s one part of the argument.

But there’s something distinct about the use of batteries and motors in vehicles, and that is the core of what vehicles are all about – mobility.

Motors and batteries – especially the latter – might work just fine when they are used in objects that are mostly stationary (phones and computers). But what happens when these are included as part of mobile objects? Will a Li-ion battery, with a chemical electrolyte inside and active components conducting electricity all the time behave the same way on bumpy roads made worse through hot weather and occasional rains?

Tough to say.

Tough to say indeed, sitting on a chair as you and I do.

But the global electric mobility industry has not been sitting idle for the last two decades. 

Let me take a a few steps back and tell you something that most of us actually hear and read, but not think about too much – product standards and certifications. Many of the things we use every day come with certifications that essentially assure us that these products conform to certain standards on performance and safety.

This testing and reliability ecosystem works as follows: For any product, an international body of experts first spell out standards & benchmarks needed for its performance and safety. In order to ensure that a product adheres to these standards, extensive tests are devised. When a product is put to these tests and comes out successful, the product is deemed to be adhering to standards and is given a certain ceritificate. 

Your fan has this certificate. So does your car. And your laptop.

The above template is applicable for the electric vehicle ecosystem too.

Both electric vehicles and batteries have well defined international standards and well developed testing mechanisms by organizations such as IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission). International and national certifications based on these standards have been in vogue for a while. In India, government bodies such as ARAI (Automotive Research Association of India) and BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) have the authority to do these tests and issue corresponding certificates.

Why did I take you through this long, pedantic route?

To tell you that, if a vehicle and its batteries have been run through these tests and have the certifications with them, they can be considered very safe, with the probability of fire accidents being extremely low. Among these are tests epecially focussed on evaluating the possibility of thermal runways. You can visit the ARAI web site to understand the extensive series of tests vehicles undergo before they are certified

For poorly tested vehicles, there are no such guarantees.

For properly tested vehicles, are the risks as low as what they are ICE vehicles? Most likely yes. In fact, Tesla claims that gasoline-powered cars are 10 times more likely to catch fire compared to that for its car. You may not find that difficult to believe but that could be also partly because no one reports on a petrol or a diesel vehicle catching fire after an accident or even under milder circumstances – basically, there is nothing sensational about it. 

I do not have the comparative stats for India, but if we take ICE vehicles and figure out the explosion and fire hazard rates and compare them with those for high quality electric vehicles, I would not be surprised if the latter does better!

The key takeaway for you, an EV user or prospective buyer: Ensure that your electric vehicle and its batteries have been fully tested and come with the relevant certifications.

Low-quality EV makers could be cutting corners to cut costs – if these corners have to do with battery safety, that could prove very costly to you. 

Originally published at Ask Narsi

About Narasimhan Santhanam (Narsi)

Narsi, a Director at EAI, Co-founded one of India's first climate tech consulting firm in 2008.

Since then, he has assisted over 250 Indian and International firms, across many climate tech domain Solar, Bio-energy, Green hydrogen, E-Mobility, Green Chemicals.

Narsi works closely with senior and top management corporates and helps then devise strategy and go-to-market plans to benefit from the fast growing Indian Climate tech market.

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