As the Tata Nexon catches fire, will safety spoil the EV dream?
There is a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, about a conversation between the former chairman of General Motors and Bill Gates. Apparently, Bill Gates was making fun of the fact that the auto industry had hardly evolved technologically in nearly 100 years. The internal combustion (IC) engine was almost the same, although speeds had improved. Bill Gates had pointed out that if the technological changes in automobiles had been at the same speed as the IT industry, then by now, the entire car would be foldable into your pocket.
Gates was not yet done. He continued that the auto industry had constantly resisted change unlike the IT industry which had embraced change. In fact, he even suggested that the auto industry should learn to reinvent itself constantly like the IT industry. The chairman of General Motors heard the complete lecture from Bill Gates, bent close to Gates and whispered, “How would you like a car that crashed every 10 minutes”? He was referring to the constant crashes in the Windows software, but the point was made.
When it comes to cars, it is safety that matters the most. When Volvo (rated the safest car in the world) invented the air bags, they made the technology available to all auto makers free of cost, since safety was not a choice but a necessity in the auto industry. For all those who talk statistics about the low accident rate, just ask them how comfortable they would be sitting in a car or a plane they know was going to crash. That is a tough call, but the moral of the story is that there can never be a debate on safety in auto industry.
Enter EVs and the Tata Nexon
The Indian electrical vehicles (EV) segment is both small and nascent. The one car model that really dominates the four wheeler EV segment is the Tata Nexon. That is why, when the Tata Nexon recently caught fire, there a lot of silent concerns about the future of the EVs in India. Nobody, after all, wants to get caught in electrical that catches fire all of a sudden, leaving them with no choice. It is OK for Bhavish Aggarwal to talk about low probabilities of fire in EVs and the inherent risk, but that is not a person driving the EV really thinks about.
The latest in the list of EV accidents is the Tata Nexon catching fire in Mumbai on 23rd June 2022. There have been several scooter fires till date, but this is the first instance of a battery fire in the Tata Nexon and is likely to dent the euphoria and celebrations surrounding the big shift to EVs in India. It has surely raised some question over safety. While this is the first case of fire, there have been earlier instances when warning signals have been flashed and the driver had the presence of mind to exit the car on time.
That brings us to a more fundamental question as to why do these EV batteries catch fire? EVs in India used the lithium-ion batteries, and these cause fire for one of the two reasons. Firstly, the fire could be caused by a manufacturing defect in the battery itself. Secondly, the fire could be due to factors like stress, vibration, electrical short circuit etc. Depending on the quality of the road and the quality of the ride, the excess vibration is a key cause of fire in EVs. The lithium ion batteries have a limit to their vibration handling capacity.
The big question is can the EV owner take some precautions? There are simple rules. Firstly, EV battery should never be charged immediately after the EV stops running. Secondly, it is best to use the battery and the charging cable that is designated for the lithium ion battery. Batteries should be shielded from direct sunlight or extreme heat and should be kept in dry places with adequate ventilation. Ideally, once the battery is fully charged, it should be removed from the charger. Also, regular inspections can solve most problems.
The EV is an idea that has gained currency across the world. It will still take time to become mainstream since the charging infrastructure is not yet in place. However, the onus is also on the user to prevent such fires.
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