Ola Electric is recalling 1,441 electric scooters as scrutiny grows over vehicles catching fire across the country. “Our internal investigation into the March 26th vehicle fire incident in Pune is ongoing and the preliminary assessment reveals that the thermal incident was likely an isolated one,” the company maintained, even as the extent of the recall appears far from isolated. The recall follows a similar recall of 3,215 units initiated by Okinawa Autotech for its PraisePro model. The announcement appears to confirm a realisation at the firm that unlike its original ride-sharing business, where it could ride out customer complaints by calling them isolated incidents or blaming it on its driver partners, the electric scooter products business will demand a different approach to such issues.
“As a pre-emptive measure, we will be conducting a detailed diagnostics and health check of the scooters in the specific batch and therefore are issuing a voluntary recall of 1,441 vehicles,” Ola Electric added in a statement sent to the press.
“These scooters will be inspected by our service engineers and will go through a thorough diagnostics across all battery systems as well as the safety systems,” the company said. It’s not just the company itself that is looking into the fires, though.
The government has deputed officials from the Indian Institute of Science and the Centre for Fire, Explosive and Environment Safety to investigate these incidents, which have occurred for bikes manufactured by Ola Electric, Okinawa Autotech, Jitendra EV and Pure EV.
It’s not clear if the two officials have submitted their report to the government yet; the government is yet to respond to an Entrackr RTI request for a copy of their report if submitted. Transport minister Nitin Gadkari on Thursday publicly called on EV manufacturers to recall ‘defective’ batches and said that an expert committee would be constituted to look into these incidents. He has also threatened ‘heavy fines’ for manufacturers slipping up on safety norms.
Dozens of fires have been reported across the country on EV scooters. The problem in most of these seem to be lithium ion batteries combusting, as was the case in Ola’s March 26 fire. Lithium ion batteries are notorious for such incidents, with Tesla vehicles having dealth with a fair amount of them (although they’re mostly not spontaneous fires, like the ones being reported for scooters in India).
But the fires don’t appear inevitable — Ather Energy, for instance, which has been in the market for a fair amount of time, doesn’t appear to have had such incidents reported. Tarun Mehta, Ather’s founder-CEO, told CNBC-TV18 last month that a lot of manufacturers are building and using battery packs that were architected for the Chinese market.
“Technically you cannot import a complete battery pack to India if you want to qualify for subsidies,” Mehta said. “I’m saying it’s happening, but the law already does not allow it. […] Not everything [from] China is a problem; China produces good stuff. But Chinese customers are buying a different kind of an electric vehicle, that’s designed for a much lower temperature and is designed for far lower abuse than Indian environments.”
“Unless you spend a few years reengineering [an overseas battery architecture] — which defeats the point of bringing it to India — you’re using a suboptimal solution.” Not enough time has been spent in reengineering battery packs when EVs were transitioning from lead acid batteries to lithium ion batteries, Mehta added.
For its part, Ola Electric said that its bikes were compliant with a proposed Indian safety standard, AIS 156, which Hero Electric CEO Sohinder Gill warned may be better suited to European climates in an interview with the Economic Times.
All sorts of safety ratings and standards compliance may not be able to catch novel design problems, though. Just look at the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which was recalled globally for catching fire due to design problems; those problems were not caught by the Bureau of Indian Standards (among other worldwide regulators), which is said to have approved the handset for sale in India. And that happened in the mature smartphone market; the blind spots may be much more for EVs in a country that has very few such vehicles to begin with.
Ola Electric, which raced to the number 2 position by sales in the two-wheeler electric market in March this year behind Hero Electric, the accelerated cycle from drawing board to market might be backfiring here. Quality issues have been cropping up ever since its scooters first hit the markets, and this early in the evolution of the category, the firm risks slowing adoption for all by the negative publicity.
Incredibly, the firm has already made a false step in its handling of the mini-crisis, by trying to shift the blame for the accident on March 26 to the driver, for driving at high speeds as it claims. Foolishly, the firm did so by sharing detailed telemetry data of the scooter’s performance from its own records, without any third-party validation or the owner’s permission. That move might yet come back to haunt the firm.