ChinaIndiaSupply ChainsCybersecurityUkraine Invasion

India’s e-scooter sales were soaring—then vehicles’ batteries started blowing up

May 15, 2022, 2:00 AM UTC

K. Siva Kumar had only owned his Corbett 14 scooter from Boom Motors for two days when its battery exploded and killed him, according to police.

The 40-year-old businessman purchased the electric two-wheeler in April to zip around the southern Indian town of Vijayawada. After a day of riding the scooter, he’d plugged its battery into an outlet in his bedroom. Some time later, it exploded and set his house on fire. Neighbors dragged Kumar, his wife, and two children to safety, but Kumar died on the way to the hospital from burn injuries and smoke inhalation. He was another fatality in a rash of electric scooter battery explosions that some experts are blaming, in part, on government efforts to boost India’s electric vehicle industry. The sector is so flush with government incentives it’s attracting inexperienced manufacturers whose jury-rigged vehicles are raising safety concerns, and—some say—costing Indians their lives. 

Few vehicles are as well suited for India as electric scooters. The two-wheelers can navigate the country’s congested cities and squeeze into cramped parking spaces. Their battery packs can be charged with a standard home outlet, and their $900 to $1,300 price tags put them within easy reach of India’s middle class consumers. Electric two-wheeler sales in the country rose by 61% year-on-year to 231,000 in the financial year ended March 2022, and they’re expected to increase to roughly 18 million by 2030, according to venture capital firm Blume

Consumer demand is bolstering the e-scooter market—and so are government initiatives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is determined to transform India into a manufacturing hub that can compete with China, and he handpicked electric vehicles as one of 13 sectors that can help the country achieve that goal. EVs also align with India’s climate objectives; the Modi administration wants electric scooters and motorbikes to make up 80% of two-wheeler sales by 2030, up from about 2% today. 

A food delivery rider fulfills orders with an electric scooter in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India, on June 28, 2021.
Prashanth Vishwanathan—Bloomberg via Getty Images

As a result, the government has pumped the industry full of incentives for electric scooter manufacturers. Last June, India’s federal government increased its subsidy for manufacturers of electric two-wheelers to 15,000 rupees or $196 per kilowatt-hour of battery capacity, up 50% from the previous amount. The government has also raised the cap on financial incentives for electric two-wheeler makers to 40% of the cost of the vehicle, up from 20%. 

The perks have turned the e-scooter industry into a sort of money-grab that’s encouraged dozens of inexperienced players to try their hand at manufacturing the vehicles by cobbling together various parts, says Srihari Mulgund, partner and head of the electric vehicles practice at consulting firm EY

“A lot of these guys are just traders. They don’t even have proper R&D facilities. My personal view is that it’s something that they are doing to make a quick buck,” Mulgund says.

Some newcomers have a history of making products that are wholly unrelated to scooters. For instance, Oreva, which sells electric scooters under the brand name Alish, is best known for producing fluorescent bulbs and wall clocks. Others like Tarang Electric are making scooters that sell for as low as $500 or around the same price as some smartphones.  

Mulgund estimates that 50 to 60 startups have launched electric scooters and bikes in recent months. Only a few, like Ola Electric and Ather, are well-funded operations with large teams. Ola and Ather have valuations topping $5 billion and $187 million, respectively, and Ola is building the world’s largest electric scooter factory in India.  

But even those established players are reportedly contributing to the string of battery explosions.

An Ola Electric scooter parked in the western Indian city of Pune suddenly caught fire on March 26, prompting a government investigation. In a Twitter post, Ola said that it was aware of the incident and investigating the cause. An Ola spokesman did not respond to a Fortune request for further comment. 

Four Okinawa Autotech scooters have burst into flames since March. In one episode, a father and daughter died in their sleep after an Okinawa two-wheeler reportedly caught fire outside their home. The fumes seeped through the family’s makeshift door, and the pair died from smoke inhalation. Okinawa says its team is investigating the incidents alongside government agencies but has raised the possibility of some fires resulting from driver error.  

In April, a rider in the southern Indian town of Hosur had to jump from his electric scooter after it burst into flames while he was riding it. Afterwards, Okinawa said the vehicle was months behind on service checks, despite the company sending the owner multiple reminders. 

Okinawa recently started offering scooter owners free inspections at dealerships across the country.

Three separate fires have been attributed to electric scooters made by Pure EV in the last seven months. In one, an 80-year-old man died and his wife and grandson reportedly suffered burn injuries after a scooter battery exploded as it charged in their living room. Pure did not comment on the incidents.

Boom Motors did not respond to a request for comment on Kumar’s death. 

Some of the fires are occurring even when vehicles are not being driven or charged. In the biggest such incident, 40 electric scooters made by Jitendra EV went up in flames on April 9 while being transported in a container truck near the town of Nashik. No one was injured.

On April 22, Indian transport minister Nitin Gadkari warned companies that they would face “heavy penalties” if fires were the result of manufacturer negligence. The government also appointed an expert committee to examine manufacturing issues in electric vehicles and make policy recommendations.

Nasir Kachroo—NurPhoto via Getty Images

Gadkari urged electric vehicle companies to act responsibly and recall defective batches without waiting for government orders or guidelines. A week later, electric vehicle maker Ola, Okinawa, and Pure EV recalled 7,000 two-wheelers as a precaution to check for fire risks.

Federal authorities have reportedly told vehicle makers not to launch new vehicles until they can root out the cause of the fires.

As the government hunts for answers, experts in the field are eyeing factors they’ve identified as possible culprits. 

Suraj Ghosh, director of mobility at S&P Global, says the incentive program the government launched in 2015 did not require EV manufacturers to make products locally. As a result, a lot of EV companies sprung up almost overnight, assembling vehicles with parts from places like China and selling them under their own brand names. Importing parts for e-scooters, particularly battery cells, poses more risks than sourcing components for other types of vehicles because battery packs are flammable and the design of each battery cell is critical to safety, says Ghosh.

Imported battery cells are approved for sale in their countries of origin—China, Japan, Korea—but the Indian buyers lack the resources to verify that cells are safe to use domestically. Two government agencies, the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) and the International Center for Automotive Technology, certify battery packs and vehicles before they hit the market, but they do so in laboratory settings that are far different from Indian streets, where temperatures can soar to above 40 degrees Celsius, says Mulgund. 

“The Indian standards for testing electric two-wheelers are on par with global standards,” says Anand Deshpande, head of automotive electronics who’s responsible for electric mobility at ARAI. The testing is always done in laboratories to simulate real world conditions, Deshpande says, noting that manufacturers also carry out tests of their own before launching products.

Deshpande did not comment on the cause for the spate of e-scooter fires, but highlighted that the government had formed an expert committee to probe the incidents

Mulgund argues that the state-run safety watchdogs are still familiarizing themselves with electric vehicle technology that’s relatively new to India and mostly imported. With gas- or diesel-powered vehicles, the agencies have years of data to reference and are therefore less prone to make errors in certification, Mulgund says.

“Electric vehicle batteries are also more temperature sensitive and the chemicals tend to break down and turn explosive above a certain threshold heat level,” says Mulgund. “Think about putting hundreds of such cells together and you can have a very potent combination.”

The India Energy Storage Alliance, an industry body focused on the development of energy storage and e-mobility, says it’s working with 25 EV firms and battery and parts manufacturers to probe the explosions. President Rahul Walawalker suspects there’s not one single explanation. 

It could be that EV makers are choosing batteries that are incompatible with their vehicles. They may be making errors in welding the cells into battery packs or installing defective sensors that are failing to alert riders when a battery overheats, he says. 

Another possibility is that fluctuations in power supply—which are common in India and can cause light bulbs to flicker and ceiling fan speeds to vary—could be contributing to the fires. “Many of the incidents happen when the batteries are being charged at home,” says Walawalker.

He too says corner-cutting could be to blame. 

“Unfortunately, to reduce costs…people bypass some of the safety aspects,” says Walawalker.

Rohan Kanwar Gupta, vice president at rating agency ICRA, says the fires are a setback for India’s e-scooters, but one from which the industry can recover, especially if the government imposes tough new standards for EV batteries. 

“There is some work to be done on the batteries on how to cool them, given India’s harsh climatic conditions. If these issues are sorted out quickly, then demand will again shoot up,” says Gupta.

But for now, some Indian consumers are reconsidering plans to buy electric scooters, despite vehicles’ low prices and usefulness. 

“I was thinking of buying an electric scooter because gasoline prices have gone through the roof,” says Manohar Sharma, a Delhi-based paramedic who travels extensively to visit patients. But the rash of e-scooter explosions has made him think twice; his safety is more important than saving money or convenience. “I think I will wait for a bit now,” he says.

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.