Electric scooters in flames show the high cost of India’s green goals

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A series of high-profile battery fires is undermining India’s bid to become a leader in electric vehicles, especially in the ubiquitous two-wheelers that ply the country’s traffic-choked roads.

Social media is full of videos of battery-powered scooters burning. Last month, a father and daughter died of smoke inhalation after their brand new bike from Okinawa Autotech Pvt caught fire while charging overnight at home. In another video, an Ola Electric Mobility Pvt scooter burns in Pune in the west of the country, while in another, around 40 two-wheelers made by Jitendra EV go up in smoke as they are transported in a container.

The incidents have, unsurprisingly, made many Indians wary of electric vehicles – the number of people who said they would not buy an electric scooter due to safety and performance issues has multiplied by eight to reach 17% in the seven months to March, a survey of about 11,500 consumers conducted by LocalCircles showed. Only 2% of people are likely to buy an electric scooter in the next six months, he found.

They also come as India, the world’s third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, tries to get more electric vehicles on its roads. Already, many consumers are reluctant to give up combustion engine cars and motorbikes due to the high upfront cost of electric vehicles and the lack of charging stations in the country, making it increasingly difficult for India to catch up with places like China and the United States that have made meaningful progress toward electrifying their transportation fleets. About 77% of annual passenger vehicle sales in China will be electric by 2040, compared to just 53% in India, according to data from BloombergNEF.

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“When I hear about such incidents, I wonder why I should opt for an electric vehicle. I would rather buy a gas-powered one new,” said Santhosh Kumar, who owns an Ola e-bike himself but now views it with some caution. “I want to be part of the electric vehicle revolution and stop pollution, but nothing is more important than the safety of my family and my children,” said the 36-year-old from Chennai.

The fires have also sparked debate over India’s reliance on imported auto parts which are then assembled locally. The problem is that the resulting electric scooters are not designed from the start for the country’s extreme climate – temperatures regularly soar to 48 degrees Celsius in the capital New Delhi – or its infrastructure. Indian roads are notoriously rutted, causing all sorts of suspension issues. India currently imports most of its electric vehicle components from China, depriving automakers of complete control over the quality and reliability of their products.

According to Rahul Mishra, partner at management consultancy firm Kearney, India’s nascent electric vehicle market is also awash with startups that have rushed into the electric scooter market and not all of them are undergoing the necessary rigor of testing in a big way. variety of weather conditions. Pressures to meet investor expectations, the need to reduce time to market and manage stakeholder perceptions mean that some have not fully developed their capabilities in product development, manufacturing, sales and after-sales, and therefore have difficulty demonstrating the same level of maturity as that established. automakers, he said.

“Releasing a prototype is one thing, but selling it to market on a commercial scale like an established automaker is a whole different ball game,” Mishra said, adding that established automakers and startups must constantly demonstrate that the Safety is “non-negotiable” when it comes to electric vehicles.

Ola, which is committed to building the world’s largest scooter factory, follows “very high” regulatory standards and investigates the cause of accidents, said founder Bhavish Aggarwal. Bengaluru-based Ola, backed by SoftBank Group Corp., said last week it would recall a batch of 1,441 scooters following an investigation into vehicle fires.

Okinawa said in a statement to Bloomberg that it has recalled 3,215 units of its PraisePro electric scooters to address battery issues, noting that the company meets all testing standards set by the government. Scooters will be checked for loose battery connectors and repaired free of charge at dealerships, he said. Okinawa, India’s second-largest maker of electric two-wheelers by market share, blamed the fire on user negligence, saying the fire was caused by a short circuit resulting from improper charging .

Jitendra EV did not respond to emails seeking comment. Pure EV, another company whose scooter was captured on video with thick plumes of gray and white smoke billowing from its rear, also did not respond to requests for comment.

The crashes at least ushered in some reforms in India’s nascent electric vehicle industry. Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has pledged to adopt new standards to tackle the fires, which are likely caused by thermal inefficiencies in lithium-ion batteries and exacerbated by hot weather. Electric vehicles should only be certified after approving a revised test system for batteries and cells, he said earlier this week. In the meantime, automakers must be “careful” with the cells they use and recall products if they find manufacturing defects.

According to Mitul Shah, analyst at Reliance Securities Ltd., the widely reported fires may also force some rationalization of the industry with only top quality startups. While traditional automakers know the importance of building a foolproof product from the start, start-ups don’t realize it’s difficult. to regain lost brand image because consumers don’t always give a second chance, he said.

Certainly, India is not the only market to have experienced battery fires. Tesla Inc. cars have come under intense scrutiny in China after crashes damaged the batteries of several and General Motors Co. has recalled a large number of Chevrolet Bolts after some burst into flames while they were parked in garages or driveways.

In China, authorities have announced a new standard for battery-powered two-wheeler models that will see the phasing out of tens of millions of non-compliant vehicles by 2025, Gogoro Inc. chief executive Horace Luke said. Gogoro is a Taiwanese electric scooter startup that earlier this year announced a tie-up with Foxconn to expand into Indonesia. The Indian government should incentivize startups to focus on battery R&D, which requires a higher degree of human capital to reach a higher bar of safety, he said.

Inside a Gogoro Inc. Global Experience Center and Interview with CEO Horace Luke

Gogoro scooters inside a workshop in one of the company’s stores in Taipei. Photographer: Billy HC Kwok/Bloomberg

“Technology development and battery management should be taken very seriously,” Luke said. “It’s important to understand that not all EVs or batteries are the same, and when shortcuts are taken in their development, consumers may be exposed to potential unmitigated safety issues.”

But faced with a potential market the size of India, a country of around 1.4 billion people where around 231,000 electric scooters were sold in the 12 months of March, that may be easier to say. what to do.

“In a rapidly growing market, the temptation to jump in early without a mature product is very strong,” said Ravneet Phokela, chief commercial officer of Ather Energy Pvt, another e-scooter startup whose bikes have yet to be documented. in no fire. Fires can break out due to faulty cell packaging and poorly designed thermal management systems, which are responsible for dissipating heat, he said. “It’s a dangerous temptation to give in to.”

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