It goes without saying that an EV should never catch fire, no matter the reasoning, and the recent Ather fire incident serves as a solid blow to already wavering customer confidence.
That being said, Ather Energy’s immediacy, transparency and lack of finger pointing helps reinforce faith in the company. A preliminary statement was immediately released stating that the incident had occurred and that more information would be shared as soon as possible. Less than 24 hours later, Ather published a detailed account of how and why the fire happened. Meanwhile, it has been 64 days since an Ola scooter caught fire (as of writing this) and we’re yet to hear from the company why it happened.
Above all else, this Ather fire serves as a reality check that we have a lot to learn when it comes to EV safety. According to the company, the scooter involved had been in an accident and was taken to the dealership. Here, it was pressure washed to get the dirt off before being inspected for damage. While removing the body panels they noticed that the aluminum battery pack was cracked and that water had already worked its way inside. The scooter was immediately isolated and, as expected, the cells inside soon short circuited leading to the fire.
Clearly, battery packs, particularly Li-ion ones, need a comprehensive, well thought out set of safety protocols. In case of an ICE vehicle accident, the vehicle is generally safe to transport once it is established that there are no fuel leaks, the engine has cooled down and the vehicle is fully turned off. With EVs, there can be hidden dangers lurking under the surface.
First, customers need to be educated, and in case of an accident it’s best to send the vehicle straight to the showroom to be inspected, even if it is seemingly rideable. Second, these products are now advanced enough that they should be able to tell if they’ve had a big impact and, subsequently, alert the company. Ather’s built-in inertial measurement unit, along with its full time internet, should be able to facilitate this. If we have no choice but to ride ‘smart and connected’ vehicles, we may as well reap these benefits.
Ather’s statement also mentioned that the scooter had some non-standard screws installed in areas near the battery pack and this could have played a role as well. EVs have left very little for dealerships to do in terms of service, so perhaps it would be wise to have bi-annual mandatory ‘service check-ups’ at a reasonable cost. These can be tied in with the warranty and they will keep things safer for the customer while generating a bit of revenue for the dealer as well.
The engineering efforts behind the Ather are widely praised and the company says that this is the first such incident in the 150 million kilometres that all its scooters have collectively accumulated. But it shows that freak accidents can happen, and they will only increase as EV adoption grows.
Of course, there are far more advanced battery chemistries being developed at breakneck speeds and most will be far more stable. But today’s Li-ion tech will be mainstream for quite a few years to come, so we best learn how to manage these batteries as safely as possible, as soon as possible.