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Should we be Concerned about EV Batteries?

By Barry Stevens | Mon, 21 January 2013 22:25 | 1

With all the problems with Boeing’s Dreamliner 787 lithium-ion batteries, it’s fair to question the performance and safety of EVs Li-ion batteries.  For the uninformed, regulators around the world joined the United States in grounding Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner passenger jets while battery-related problems are investigated.

Boeing’s technical prowess and FAA’s certification requirements are demonstratively superior and more rigorous than the auto industry, EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to Forbes, “The auto industry sold around 14.5 million units last year (2012). Meanwhile, according to their research culling through federal notices and manufacturers’ releases, automakers recalled over 14.3 million current and past models during 2012.”

The article points out: “Toyota voluntarily recalled nearly 5 million Toyota, Lexus and Scion models…..” “…..Honda initiated programs for over 3.4 million Honda and Acura vehicles.” “General Motors recalled nearly 1.3 million cars and trucks…..” “Ford recalled over 1.1 million vehicles…..” “…..Ford recalled a brand-new model, the redesigned-for-2013 Escape crossover SUV, three separate times shortly after its release, all for potential engine fires.” “Virtually all automakers–including exotic brands like Rolls-Royce, Lotus and Lamborghini–had at least one recall issued during 2012.

Makes one wonder, if more conventional technologies are plagued with field related problems, what one can expect with a truly cutting-edge technology. Especially with a technology like Li-ion batteries that experienced some catastrophic failures with several consumer electronic products. Take that to the extreme where more power is packed in a smaller package with new chemistry and operated in all sorts of climatic zones by owners who for the most part are relatively inexperienced with suggested EV battery management practices.

There are three major concerns with EV batteries:
1) Will the batteries achieve EPA’s miles per charge rating?
2) Will charge life drop over time?
3) Can the batteries experience catastrophic failure such as catching on fire or exploding?

The first two concerns are inextricably bound together. Owners of Li-ion powered devices such as cell phones and laptops clearly understand these issues. The halls resonate with “where did they get these ratings from, mine don’t even come close,” “where is a socket, my batteries are almost dead,” and “it’s time for a new battery,” or in the case of iPhone users, “time to upgrade.” Pick these apart all you want, but at the end of this is a way of life for owners of Li-ion devices.

To preserve battery life, owners need to adopt good battery management practices. Plugin Cars gave these eight tips to extend electric vehicle battery life:

Related Article: New Charging Algorithm can Extend Battery Life for Electric Vehicles

• Avoid full charging when you can. • For pure electric vehicles, avoid deep discharging your battery pack.

• For plug-in hybrids, consider “mountain-mode” or exiting EV-mode at key times. • Use timers to minimize the time spent at a high state of charge.

• On a hot day, try to park in the shade. During the winter, park in a garage, rather than on the street.

• If your electric vehicle has thermal management and the weather is extreme, plug in whenever you can.

• Plan ahead for periods of extended storage . To maximize battery life, minimize use of DC quick-charge.

Great suggestions but impractical at best! Charging gauges in vehicles need to be relabeled to indicate: JERK at full charge and IDIOT at full discharge. Vehicles need to be programed to beep the horn and flash the lights when parked in the sun or stored for a length of time in a high state of charge (beeping will help to discharge batteries, but hopefully won’t fully dischage). When quick-charging an audible warning signal will speak out: “Danger, Danger! – Mr. / Ms. Smith.”

Autobloggreen recently reported: “Some hot Arizona weather is cooling some Nissan Leaf owners’ enthusiasm for their electric vehicles.   Nissan is addressing complaints from five Arizona owners of Leafs who say the electric vehicles are losing battery capacity at a faster rate than advertised, reported KPHO, CBS’s Phoenix affiliate.   Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning, told KPHO that the automaker is investigating complaints from drivers who say the region’s heat is draining the EVs’ battery capacity. One Arizona driver said his single-charge driving range is down to 44 miles from about 90 miles a year ago, while another says that three of the car’s 12 battery-capacity indicator lights are already out, according to KPHO.”

While a ¬NJ EV owner with 50,000 miles logged dispels myth of cold weather battery woes, “the Rocky Mountain Institute reported potential EV buyers should consider range and climate. If the miles you cover each day are predictable and/or less than 60 miles, an EV might work for you. Just like a typical car battery, an EV battery loses effectiveness in cold weather, so they work best in warm climates.”

Concerns about EV battery susceptibility to catching on fire seem legitimate. The media sensitized the public in late 2011 when U.S. regulators investigated the safety of batteries used to power electric vehicles after a Chevrolet Volt caught fire following a routine crash test.

Fisker Automotive’s Karma hybrid EV sedan may be a different. “Last spring a model burnt to near smithereens and damaged its owner’s house, the Karma above caught fire in a Woodside, CA parking lot while powered off.”

The company “analyzed the October 30 fire that destroyed 16 Karmas when Hurricane Sandy flood waters receded. After “a thorough investigation witnessed by NHTSA representatives”–that the cause was residual salt damage inside a Vehicle Control Unit submerged in seawater for several hours. Corrosion from the salt caused a short circuit in the unit, which led to a fire when the Karma’s 12-Volt battery fed power into the circuit.”

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The same report noted, “the factory (Fisker) concluded that the fire which badly damaged the 2012 Fisker Karma parked outside a store in Woodside, California, was caused by a short circuit in a cooling fan located in the engine compartment.  No explanation was given for the May 2012 Karma fire, in Sugar Land, Texas, which destroyed the car and damaged the garage and house it was kept in.”

So what are the facts? The American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE) reported:

• “More than 487,480 electric drive vehicles – hybrids, extended range and battery – were purchased in the U.S. in 2012. (Source: Electric Drive Transportation Association, http://bit.ly/JJXV0w )

• Nissan – world’s largest seller of electric vehicles – is upgrading the Leaf for 2013. All 2013 Leaf models have improved electric range, and recharge time for SV and SL grades falls to four hours from a 220-volt outlet, from about seven hours currently.

• There are eight models of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles that retail for under $32,000. (Source: Media Matters, http://bit.ly/HN06Vy, http://engt.co/R6dmHv, http://bit.ly/OKTEB4 ). By comparison, the average price of a car purchased in the United States in April 2012 was approximately $30,000. (Source: True Car, http://bit.ly/PLVmzl ).

• Maintenance costs for electric drive vehicles are as much as 50% lower than traditional gasoline vehicles, thanks to fewer fluids to change, significantly reduced brake wear due to regenerative braking, and far fewer moving parts. (Source: Center for Automotive Research, http://bit.ly/L07he8 and U.S. Department of Energy, http://bit.ly/QBLmGY )

• EVs are safe. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, there were an estimated 184,500 conventional highway vehicle fires in 2010, and 31,000 other non-highway vehicle (equipment) fires.  In the extremely rare incidents where a fire has involved an EV, no findings of any relationship to the electric drive components have been found.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration thoroughly examined the safety of EVs in accidents and found no real-world electric vehicle crashes that resulted in battery-related fires. (Source: National Fire Protection Agency, http://bit.ly/N3fEBG ; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, http://1.usa.gov/TJJ5xC )”

In closing, EVs are safe and not prone to fire damage and explosions at any (rated) speed. Facts rather than supposition have to rule. In this regard, when budget and life style allows, EV’s make sense.

PS: I started this piece with the inclination that EV fires are a real and persistent danger. My conclusion speaks for itself. The only lingering concern is industry maturation followed by the introduction of cheap Li-ion replacement batteries. Adherence to standards and strict qualification protocols is a must.

By. Dr. Barry Stevens

Leave a comment

  • David Hrivnak on January 22 2013 said:
    Having built a few EV's and using a factory built EV as my daily drive, I feel much safer driving an EV than a gasoline powered car. According to NFPA we average about 200,000 car fires a year. That is about 1 in every 1000 cars on the road. If you look at the number of Volt, Leaf and Tesla fires you have one out of more than 50,000 cars and that one was the result of a crash test where the car was set aside for 3 weeks without disconnecting or discharging the battery. So it looks like EV's are about 50 times safer than gasoline.

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