The recent incidents of fire involving electric two-wheelers (ETWs) could not have come at a more inopportune time for the electric vehicles (EV) industry and the government. EV sales are picking up fast and have for the first time crossed four lakh units in FY22 (1.36 lakh units in FY21) driven largely by ETWs, which account for over 55 per cent of the total EVs sold. Interestingly, there are indications of ETWs substituting petrol two-wheelers, as the sales of the latter have dipped in 2021 despite 2020 being a recession year. In a scenario of runaway petrol prices, this substitution can only rise further. The government is keen on this transition as two-wheelers account for almost 70 per cent of retail petrol consumption in the country. A shift to EVs will reduce the oil import bill and enhance India’s energy security. The government has for this reason, sweetened the incentives it offers under the FAME-II scheme. States too have offered their share of incentives.
It was all going well until the last couple of weeks when two ETWs caught fire in quick succession bringing to the fore the critical issue of safety of EVs. It is imperative that the authorities get to the bottom of the two incidents of fire. Experts have said that a design or a manufacture flaw in the batteries, most of which are sourced from China, could have caused the fire. ‘Overcharging’, cited as a possible cause, can possibly be traced back to design and software flaws. All this reveals quality issues either at the end of the supplier (when it comes to the battery cell) or EV manufacturer (when it comes to battery pack). It is not established whether charging in hot weather conditions per se can lead to such accidents. While the AIS-156 Standard adopted by the government is followed globally, it may be insufficient for Indian conditions, where the battery is exposed to rough use, tropical weather and high levels of vibration. The government should review its standards regarding tests needed for Indian conditions on both batteries and charging systems. While steps to regulate battery and vehicle quality should be taken soon, it is also incumbent on the EV manufacturers to counsel buyers on battery handling and safe charging techniques.
The barrier is rather low for those intending to enter the business of manufacturing EVs. Though there is high technology involved, there is a misperception that EVs are easier to build compared to internal combustion engine vehicles. The easy availability of cheap knocked down kits and batteries for import from abroad has only made it simpler for those with no experience in the automotive industry to enter the space. Many players have entered the fray and are not investing enough in engineering their products (including the battery) and testing them. The two incidents of fires point to either the absence of safety systems in the vehicle or if they did exist, their failure. The government too has been lax. It has allowed ETWs with speeds of less than 25 km/hour to be sold without any serious certification. The government needs to act swiftly to frame stringent regulations and standards. Otherwise, the much anticipated shift to EVs will be a still-born one.