Flaming China taxi problem revealed. It was the battery pack. Making an EV is tough…
Back in April, an EV produced by Zotye Auto www.zotye.com , a privately-owned Chinese auto maker, burst into flames while in use as a taxi in the east China city of Hangzhou. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-12/china-s-hangzhou-suspends-electric-taxi-operations-after-fire-news-says.html I’ve had some bad taxi experiences in Hangzhou, but never one quite that bad.
The Hangzhou government investigated the cause of the conflagration. Its conclusion, reported in the local press, http://www.china4auto.com/news/showd.aspx?id=252192 suggests it is a lot harder to produce an electric vehicle than China’s automakers—or at least Zotye—imagined. And that Chinese companies producing EVs need to do a lot of testing before they put them on the road for general use.
The problems at Zotye also underscore how far Chinese automakers need to come to match the superlative safety rankings of today’s new electric cars from major global automakers.
In the U.S., electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf www.nissan-leaf.com and Chevy Volt, http://www.chevrolet.com/volt/have been receiving very high safety scores. http://www.autoobserver.com/2011/04/leaf-and-volt-earn-highest-iihs-safety-ratings.html
The investigation determined that the battery cell design was not the problem. But, there were quality problems in the battery pack production process, and it did not satisfy the demands of the operating conditions in an automobile, it said. According to the local press story, after the battery module had been in use for a while, battery leakage and insulation damage occurred, causing a short-circuit. The report I read didn’t give more details, but it was still pretty damning.
Producing an EV is tough, especially for young companies without much experience producing any kind of cars, much less electric ones. Even if the battery cell is good, combining multiple cells to create a module is hard. Then there’s managing all that heat. And getting the battery module to talk to and work with the rest of the car’s systems ain’t easy. Battery management systems were one weaknesses in China’s EV segment that were identified in an excellent report put out in June 2010 by InterChina Consulting in Beijing. www.interchinaconsulting.com
A separate InterChina report on China’s traction battery industry concluded that the Chinese government’s policy of promoting the EV
sector had resulted in excessive investment in the battery sector, especially by small privately and collectively-owned companies. Many relied on “cheap and inferior equipment” and “a lot of manual labor” to keep prices low, said InterChina. China’s battery sector therefore “lacks
competent techniques and processing line equipment to guarantee product consistency between batches of volume production,” it concluded.
InterChina didn’t single out any companies. But the flaming taxi problem is a case in point. (Now I think I understand the traffic signs around Hangzhou of a car with flames bursting out of the top….).
Green Automotive Co., www.usaelectricauto.com a Newport Beach-based company, (it moved its headquarters from Texas last month), still aims to import Zotye EVs. The taxi that caught fire is not the same model as the EV it wants to sell in the U.S. That is a small SUV. But does the U.S. model contain the same battery modules?
Spokesman David Welch couldn’t answer that question. But battery technology in general was evolving quickly, he said, adding, “One car caught on fire. It happens. That is called testing.” He predicted there would be Zotye EVs on the road in the U.S. by the first quarter of 2012. The first model in the U.S. will be called the Zeus, said Welch. (Fortunately they didn’t chose to name it after Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, or Vulcan, his Roman counterpart.)
Several of the Zotye EVs are being tested for FMVSS compliance at Roush Industries, www.roush.com an independent testing firm in Michigan. The next round of tests will occur on June 22, said Welch. For sure, Roush will test the Zotye EVs to see if you will survive being rammed by a larger SUV. Hopefully it will also test the battery pack to ensure it won’t bursts into flames.