NEW DELHI — Demand for electric scooters was heating up in India. Then they began to catch fire.
If the safety issues aren’t fixed, and people start to lose faith in the technology, it “certainly can be a big spoke in the wheel to the overall plans of decarbonization,” said Karthik Ganesan, a fellow at the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water.
In late April, an 80-year-old man in the southern state of Telangana died after a battery exploded while charging in his home; four other people were hurt. A similar incident days later in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh killed a 40-year-old man and injured several family members.
Videos of electric scooters catching fire have gone viral on social media, prompting a government investigation and multiple recalls, and casting a shadow over an industry that had seen rapid growth.
Scooters, whether powered by fuel or electricity, are the most popular form of transportation in India, from its traffic-choked cities to its rural back roads. With fuel prices shooting up, e-vehicle makers are cashing in.
Most purchases of major electric scooter models are booked months in advance. The country’s largest manufacturer of scooters and motorcycles, Hero MotoCorp, is launching an e-scooter this year and investing tens of millions of dollars in the technology. Homegrown ride-sharing company Ola announced in 2021 that it would manufacture 10 million electric two-wheelers every year.
But Ola was forced to recall more than 1,400 vehicles last month after one of its scooters went up in flames while parked beside a road in the city of Pune.
In a statement to The Washington Post, the company said the recalled scooters will undergo a “thorough diagnostics across all battery systems, thermal systems as well as the safety systems.”
Two other companies — Pure EV and Okinawa — together recalled more than 5,000 scooters after fires. The companies did not respond to a request for comment.
India’s problems are not unique. France took dozens of electric buses off the road last month after two fire incidents. Last year, American auto giant General Motors recalled about 142,000 Chevrolet Bolt electric cars over battery fire concerns.
Fewer vehicles have been recalled in India, but consumers have noticed. In a recent survey, 17 percent of people said they wouldn’t buy an electric scooter because of safety and performance concerns — an eightfold rise from six months ago.
“Customers walking in are asking questions about safety,” said Nikhil Chaudhary, who owns an electric scooter showroom in Haryana, near Delhi. “It’s a new technology and people are worried.”
Experts say a short-circuit in the cells that make up a vehicle battery are typically responsible for fires. A short-circuit can lead to an uncontrolled spike in current, causing battery cells to heat to more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many companies import low-cost batteries — mostly from China — without testing them, said Vivekananda Hallekere, CEO and co-founder of Bounce, a recently launched electric scooter brand. In some cases, he said, the battery management system, which effectively functions as the brain of the battery, may not be doing its job.
Hallekere’s company allows customers to swap a used battery for a charged one, eliminating the need for people to recharge at home.
Batteries catching fire is “essentially a question of quality,” said Ravneet Phokela, chief business officer for Ather Energy, an e-scooter brand available in more than 30 cities in India. “The batteries are either of poor quality or poorly put together and not topicalized for local conditions.”
Some have speculated that the scorching heat this year is causing batteries to explode, but experts say that’s unlikely. High temperatures can affect battery life and performance, they agreed, but don’t lead to fires.
An initial government probe found “faulty battery cells and modules” as the likely cause of the fires, according to a Reuters report last week.
Some companies appeared to be cutting corners on research and development, said Sohinder Gill, a spokesperson for the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles and CEO of Hero Electric. “In a hurry to reach the market, they jump from the development stage to sales. Enough trials are not done.”
India still lags behind much of the world in its electrification push, but is trying to make up for lost time by offering subsidies to new buyers. Fewer than 3 percent of all new vehicles sold between April 2021 and March 2022 were electric, according to a recent report, but that marked a 200 percent increase from the previous year.
The government has said it wants electric vehicles to comprise at least 30 percent of sales by 2030. That would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 4 percent, according to a 2020 report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions would go down by more than 15 percent each.
“Two-wheelers are actually a low-hanging fruit as far as India is concerned,” said Karthik Ganesan, one of the authors of the emissions report.
For electric scooters to be a part of India’s green future, he said, companies urgently need to address the battery fires and restore the public’s trust.
“Ultimately, people aren’t going to wait for the industry to get its act together,” he said. “But I don’t think that this is an issue that cannot be solved.”
Anant Gupta contributed to this report.