India's two-wheeler industry needs to ensure that the quality of the two-wheelers is not compromised for the sake of mass and quick production.
Electric two-wheelers are largely powered by lithium-ion battery packs which consist of hundreds of individual battery cells.Lithium is amongst the lightest known metals, making it extremely suitable in applications where weight is vital. The idea of using lithium-ion batteries has been around for decades, but developing lithium-ion batteries into a workable form took decades. In 2019, scientists John B.Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their pioneering work in taming lithium and making it suitable to be used as a battery. Today, lithium batteries are all around us, from mobile phones and laptops to children’s toys, and now in electric vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Despite the work done by these scientists and the industrialised mining of lithium and production of lithium cells, lithium batteries continue to be a problem. While some fault lies in substandard batteries, where pollutants amongst the other metals and components required for batteries can cause a problem, it would be fallacious to just blame ‘bad’ batteries. The experience with Samsung mobile phones and Sony Vaio laptops, which caught fire on planes and had top-notch lithium batteries, prove that under stress any lithium battery can pose a risk. But there is little doubt, that despite Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) norms for batteries, poor quality batteries and chargers continue to be fitted on many of the electric two-wheelers that operate in India and can be disastrous. Many of these, particularly the low-speed two-wheelers, are made by companies with little or no manufacturing knowledge and are just put together from Chinese kits. Thermal runaway, which can simply be explained as extreme overheating, can be contained at an early stage with adequate cooling and cell management. The latter is a route that many high-end applications of lithium batteries have adopted, not just on expensive cars but on high-end laptops and mobiles. These systems can monitor groups of cells for unusual activity and if temperatures start rising, that part of the battery pack gets automatically shut off from the rest of the system. In addition, better cooling systems can help electric vehicles cool themselves more efficiently. It is not surprising that many electrified performance vehicles have more intensive cooling systems than equivalent petrol-powered machines. However, both these solutions are expensive, and in the case of cooling systems, cumbersome as well. This is why a great majority of the electric two-wheelers in India sold today not only have lithium cells of questionable provenance but also are only air-cooled.
The latter is a route that many high-end applications of lithium batteries have adopted, not just on expensive cars but on high-end laptops and mobiles.But these two conditions alone do not make a perfect storm; what makes this entire situation quite literally combustible is India’s hot climate. Batteries heat up while charging and while discharging. This can be noted in phones as well since they use lithium-ion batteries, albeit with slightly different chemistry to the batteries used in two-wheelers. One can feel the batteries heat up while making a long phone call. In the Apple iPhone or a high-end Android device, for example. if it gets too hot, it goes into a self-protect mode; it stops charging itself when the internal temperature of the device crosses a particular threshold. Now, you can always tuck your phone away in your pocket very easily, but an electric two-wheeler that has been operating in India’s heat and dust? Not that easy, and even if you do find shade, ambient temperatures in parts of northern and central India in May and June can exceed 45 degrees Celsius, even at night. A battery that is charging or has just been used, maybe intensively, will find it impossible to cool down. If electric two-wheelers, particularly low-end products with questionable batteries and no thermal management systems proliferate, this can become a major problem. A problem that China faced in the early days of electric two-wheeler adoption in their country around 2016–2018, where electric vehicle fires were almost daily occurrences, particularly in hotter cities in interior China such as Chongqing. However, all is not lost. Samsung repaired its reputation around the Galaxy device and made it extremely safe, despite airports and airlines constantly making announcements about the phone for a few years. Similarly, the portable laptop industry has worked on solutions such as cooling pads and crucially making their energy usage more efficient and thus not heating all that much. In addition, clever software and temperate sensors on devices prevent overheating and the potential for thermal runaway. Crucially, there will be a cost to these solutions, but if India’s decarbonisation has to work, we need to appreciate that we are a hot country and that heat has consequences for electric vehicles.
The strongest action would be to mandate a call back of all affected models till the most immediate issues are resolved.
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Promit Mookherjee is an Associate Fellow at the CentreRead More +
Kushan Mitra is a journalist with over two decadesRead More +