Ola's top of the line S1 Pro electric scooter appears to have caught on fire in Pune, Maharashtra, months after launch. No injuries were reported.
Videos circulated on social media show a blue scooter, parked by the roadside, spewing smoke and bursting into flames in a matter of seconds.
Ola said that it is investigating the incident to understand the root cause and will take "appropriate action". The Quint reached out to Ola with a list of queries about the incident, but we haven't received a response yet.
On Saturday, an Okinawa electric scooter also caught on fire in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, killing a man and his 13 year old daughter, ET Auto reported. According to the local police and the manufacturer, however, this appears to be a case of user-negligence.
The central government is dispatching a team of independent experts to investigate both incidents, CNBC-TV18 reported, quoting government sources.
"Both scooters had been tested and received type approvals before being launched in the market," the sources added, according to the channel. The probe will reportedly cover potential manufacturing issues and whether the fires were caused by structural factors or external factors.
The Ola S1 Pro, priced at Rs 1.30 lakh, has a 3.97 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. It boasts a range of 181 km on a single charge and a top speed of 115 kmph.
How Does an EV Catch on Fire?
In the Vellore incident, the local police's investigation reportedly suggests that the user plugged the charger in an old socket with a less-than-recommended voltage capacity, which may have caused a short circuit.
In Ola's case, the root cause remains unknown.
Most EVs today use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries which can store a lot of energy in limited space. In vehicles, these batteries can be exposed to varying temperatures, debris, humidity and general wear and tear.
These battery cells typically have four components: a positive electrode, a negative electrode, a separator which prevents contact between the two, and an electrolyte which is often a flammable liquid. The electrodes are placed close to each other, which increases the chances of a short circuit.
“This flammable liquid could get into what’s called a thermal runaway situation where it just starts sort of boiling, and that results in a fire,”Eric Wachsman, Director of Maryland’s Energy Institute to CNBC
Thermal runaway is a phenomenon in which one exothermal reaction (which releases heat) accelerates other reactions, snowballing into an uncontrollable and sudden increase in temperature.
Batteries with Nickel, Manganese and Cobalt (NMC), used by Ola and several other manufacturers, have high energy density, which means automakers can increase the range of their vehicles without increasing battery weight.
However, some manufacturers, including Tesla, are switching to lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cells as these are cheaper and are thought to be safer than NMC cells.
Ola's Shaky Start
Ola entered the electric vehicle (EV) space with a bang. In July last year, its electric scooters saw 1 lakh reservations in just 24 hours of opening of pre-launch bookings.
Its main competitors Hero Electric, Okinawa Autotech, and Ather Energy sold just 40,000, 24,000, and 14,000 units respectively in the last year, Autocar reported.
Then, the problems started to emerge.
The delivery of the scooters was delayed multiple times. In January, the company announced that it will halt production of the Ola S1 till 2022 and will instead focus on manufacturing the premium S1 Pro model.
The company then told those who booked the vanilla model that it will upgrade them to the S1 Pro's hardware – without the upgraded features. For those they'll have to shell out an extra Rs 30,000.
Hardware problems also cropped up. Several reviews of the Ola Electric S1 Pro complain about the batteries overheating, throttled response, and reduced range.
Features like cruise control, hill hold and navigation were also reportedly missing on the delivered scooters, and were slated to be added with software updates later.
(With inputs from CNBC-TV18 and ET Auto.)