Fast batteries, James May's limo and explosions

Everything about EVs in the last few days

Hello and welcome back to The Fast Charge, the newsletter that will plug you into the latest in electric motoring. My name is Tom Riley and I’ll be your host.

I’m always so surprised how much EV news there is in only a few days. This week had some really great bits, not least that one company has created a battery that takes just five minutes to charge. If that can be rolled out, it really will be a gamechanger.

On the topic of batteries, another Tesla decided to erupt into flames this week, so I’ve written a little bit about why batteries explode.

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In the news…

VOLTING BIDEN: Joe Biden is now President of the USA and already he has begun reversing policies enacted by Donald Trump. One of them is that President Biden has re-enrolled America into the Paris Climate Agreement. This move is linked to many other green policies the new administration will bring in, including greater investment into electric vehicles. On the news, Ford Motor’s stock rose to the highest they’ve been in two years.

LEADERBOARD: Speaking of world leaders, Carwow, the British motoring marketplace, has analysed each nations’ EV registration and created a list of the best and worst for electric ownership. Top of the list is, obviously, Norway. They have 18.9 people per electric car. Closely followed by the USA (46.8), Iceland (72.6), Sweden (76.7) and the Netherlands (141.4). Bringing up the rear, the worst countries for EV ownerships are Croatia (5,558.9 people per car), Romania (5,818.3), Poland (9,602.9), Greece (19,108.7) and, in the stone dead last, Turkey (54,959.7).

5 MINUTE CHARGE: An Israeli company (StoreDot) has managed to mass-produce electric car batteries capable of being charged in five minutes. And, yes, that’s from 0% to 100%. It’s an incredible achievement made possible by using silicon nanoparticles, rather than graphite and germanium that current EV batteries contain. Though a great move, the new hyper-fast batteries will need a lot more power to charge at full pelt. They are working with companies like BP and Daimler to make that happen. Read my article about it here.

SLIMMING BMW: They say accountants rule everything, that seems to be increasingly true in the auto industry right now. Whereas last week it was Renault who decided to focus on better margins through increased quality, it is BMW’s turn this week to announce the same. Their finance chief explained yesterday how they would be making big investments in electric cars, though, because EVs are less profitable, to begin with, they will also have to simplify their vehicle portfolio. BMW plans to make most of their cash from China and Europe - both are trying to meet ambitious emissions targets.

GOING ELECTRIC: New wide-ranging research this week, by the British company RAC, found 8 in 10 drivers (78%) believe that pure electric cars are still too expensive when compared to conventional vehicles of a similar size. However, despite this, 9% of the 3,000 respondents to the study said they intended to ‘go electric’ next time around, up from 6% in 2019 and 3% a year earlier.

VAT OFF: More insight from the RAC report suggested the majority of motorists (53%) would like to see VAT (sales tax) on zero-emission vehicles either cut or abolished entirely. Likewise, 48% believe a scrappage scheme to make switching from a conventionally powered car to an electric model should be introduced. Perhaps a good idea but, as EV-leading Norway has shown, you can’t drop taxes and give out grants forever.

CRUISING TO VICTORY: A tech firm out in the sun-kissed San Francisco called ‘Cruise’ - which develops self-driving technology - has won the backing of Microsoft this week. This adds to a growing list of big-name tech names investing into them, including GM and Honda. If you’re not familiar with Cruise, they are the innovators of a self-driving EV shuttle called the ‘Origin’. To me, it seems very similar to the limousine James May created in TopGear.

SHOCK HORROR: Just over a week ago, editors of the Financial Times, which boasts itself as ‘the world's leading global business publication’, shared an editorial where they claimed: “the electric car future is finally taking off”. In their article, they waxed lyrical about the bright future for battery power and that “global EV sales will grow 50 per cent or more this year.” However, this week it seems they got cold feet as their financial commentary section, Alphaville, headlined “let’s get ready to tumble” as it claimed there is “an electric vehicle bubble brewing”. I wonder who could cause something like that?

Should we worry about exploding batteries?

Earlier this week, after a busy day at work, someone in Shanghai drove home in their Tesla Model 3 and proceeded to park it in an underground garage. Everything was normal. That was until it wasn’t, as the Model 3 exploded into a ball of flames.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt. According to Tesla, the cause of the explosion was likely an ‘impact’ - such as driving over a manhole cover - which hit the underside of the car and caused the battery to meltdown.

This is not the first time an electric car has combusted in this way. Tesla in particular has for years had to deal with their cars randomly setting on fire.

No doubt this week’s latest explosion won’t be the last. So, as EV sales go through the roof, should we be worried about getting deep-fried on the motorway?

Well, let’s look at why they explode.

Across the globe, we currently use lithium-ion batteries in our electric cars. The purpose of these batteries is to store and release energy in a controlled way. They contain a range of elements which are potentially flammable, often in highly pressurised spaces, and with few partitions between the charged areas.

In nearly all cases this balance is maintained but, sometimes, because the layer between the negative and positive charges is so thin, it can only take one simple puncture to cause a reaction.

This probably isn’t a worry in some parts of the world like China, where every road is new and flat. However, in Britain, our roads have more holes than a teenager's face, so perhaps it is a little worrying.

But, don’t worry, if the rupture doesn’t get you ‘thermal runaway’ might.

This occurs when a battery charger does not have any temperature control or does not function properly. Essentially, battery cells overheat and become unstable, creating a process where the cells next to it also become unstable, often resulting in excess energy or flames.

You might recall back in 2017 Samsung Galaxy Note phones suffered from this problem. They contained a design flaw that made the battery susceptible to bending. This led to thermal runaway and short circuits, often resulting in an explosion.

The good news is, the risk of your EV setting on fire is extremely low. And, statistically, the risk is no greater than if you were to be driving a petrol or diesel-powered car. In some cases, it is much higher. Take the Lamborghini Aventador, for example, which practically listed setting on fire as a key feature.

As battery tech continues to improve at a rapid rate, no doubt the safety will only improve too. It’s certainly not in the interests of car manufacturers to have people burning alive in their products. Samsung learnt that to great cost, the recall of their fiery phones lost them some $17 billion, not to mention the impact on their brand.

Tesla knows these risks, and they can’t afford to upset their various shareholders. It’s of no coincidence that this morning their weekly email had the subject heading ‘Built for safety’. In it, they remind people of their features including a “floor-mounted battery allowing for incredible impact protection.”

So, while the vast majority of us will only ever read about battery fires on the news, it still might be worth keeping a fire extinguisher in your garage just in case.

By Tom Riley