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BYD e6 taxi fire still not fully explained; China EV market and BYD would benefit from more disclosure

July 3, 2012

It has been a bit over a month since a BYD e6 electric taxi caught fire in the south China city of Shenzhen and burned to a crisp, killing the three people inside.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/30/business/global/byd-releases-details-about-electric-taxi-fire.html?_r=1 The taxi was struck by a Nissan GT-R being driven by a drunk driver at 112 mph.  Naturally, the initial reaction was to blame the EVs lithium-iron phosphate battery, which BYD www.byd.com claims is one of the safest batteries around.

The Shenzhen police snatched the fried taxi to investigate the cause of the fire.  The most recent report on the investigation, according to BYD, was released on June 11.  The report that BYD provided to me concluded that the fire was caused by either a short in electrical wires igniting the car interior and/or high-friction heat and fire from the skidding tires.  The battery did not explode during the crash, the report concluded. Pretty inconclusive conclusion, actually.  http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-06-07/byd-executive-says-electric-car-battery-didn-t-cause-crash-fire

Investors in Hong Kong-listed BYD seem to have gotten over that incident. To be sure, the share price of BYD Co. (HK 1211) dropped on the news of the accident. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/car-maker-byd-shares-fall-after-fatal-taxi-crash-2012-05-28  But it recovered in a few days. Of course, recovery is relative—the stock continued its gradual downward trend, really what one would expect from a company that is seeing sales fall in its major product areas.   On the Hong Kong stock exchange website, BYD’s principal activities are listed as research, development and sale of rechargeable batteries, handset components, and assembley (sic) service as well as automobiles and related products.

But have potential buyers of a BYD electric vehicle gotten over the taxi fire issue?  It seems to have vanished from the news cycle. ( I can’t search Chinese-language websites very well on my laptop so maybe the story is all over those sites.  I doubt it, though. I do read some Chinese-language auto sites regularly.)  Yet there still hasn’t been a thorough analysis of what actually happened, or at least we don’t know about it.  Has BYD gotten its hands on the car and has it done an analysis?  Or is it satisfied with the official report that absolves the battery of blame?

Studys show Chinese consumers are leery of the new technology in electric vehicles especially as it comes at a premium.  And safety ranks first or second in many polls ranking what Chinese consumers look for in a car.  It seems BYD could have reaped some good publicity by doing its own tests on the cause of the crash and being very transparent about the results, which would hopefully prove BYD’s assertion that the battery is very safe.

Okay, now I’m going to re-purpose content from a column I wrote for auto163.com, a Chinese automotive website. http://alyshawebb.blog.163.com/

The Chinese government—and BYD—should study the way the U.S. government and General Motors handled the case of a battery fire in a Chevrolet Volt Extended Range Electric Vehicle after a crash test.  The transparency with which that problem was dealt with—including the full explanation of the tests performed –helped maintain consumer confidence in the Volt’s safety. http://www.nhtsa.gov/PR/Volt

A bit of background on the Volt issue (in case you don’t already know):  On November 25, 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it would open an investigation regarding the safety of the battery in the Chevrolet Volt.  Among its many responsibilities, the NHTSA sets vehicle safety standards, investigates possible safety defects, and tracks safety recalls.  The NHTSA had conducted a crash test on the Volt; three weeks later the car’s battery caught fire because of a ruptured coolant line and a damaged battery casing.  No one was injured in the fire; it apparently occurred when the car was sitting in a NHTSA garage.  The NHTSA said it would be working with the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and General Motors to “complete rigorous tests of the Volt’s lithium-ion battery.

The NHTSA described in detail the tests it conducted after the fire, and all the information is available online. It conducted three tests that intentionally damaged the battery pack.  “In each of the battery tests conducted in the past two weeks, the Volt’s battery was impacted and rotated to simulate a real-world, side-impact collision into a narrow object such as a tree or a pole followed by a rollover,” said the NHTSA

No fire resulted from the first two tests though a rise in temperature was detected after the second test.  In the third test, however, “the battery pack was rotated within hours after it was impacted and began to smoke and emit sparks shortly after rotation to 180 degrees,” said the NHTSA.  It continues to monitor the battery from the second test, said the NHTSA.   The NHTSA also issued recommendations to consumers and emergency responders in case of a crash involving an electric vehicle.

GM offered to loan Volt owners a car or to buy back the Volt. No Volt owners wanted to sell their car back to GM.   Meanwhile, GM quickly crafted a fix for the problem—it installed more shielding to protect the battery.  The NHTSA tested Volts with the fix; no fires resulted.  http://blogs.automotive.com/gm-to-strengthen-chevy-volt-battery-pack-in-response-to-nhtsa-investigation-72663.html

Sorry to bore you with all these details, but I wanted to show you how much information the U.S. government released regarding the Volt fire, and the way GM responded to the incident.  To be sure, there are inconclusive EV fires here in the U.S.  We still don’t know exactly what happened with that Fisker Karma that burned up in a garage in Texas.  At least no one died there.

The BYD case is a bit different from the Volt case—the fire was caused after the e6 was pushed into a tree after being struck by a car going 180 km/hour.  Any car, electric or not, would likely burst into flame after such an impact.  However, the Chinese authorities—and BYD—should be no less diligent in investigating the problem.  BYD’s response that the e6 had passed all the relevant tests is not sufficient.  The Volt has also passed all the relevant tests. But EV technology is so new that it is difficult to know what the relevant tests—or potential problems—are.  China’s government has just announced policies to expand the use of electric vehicles in its municipal bus fleets, and to encourage more consumer purchases of electric vehicles.  Riders in those buses, and buyers of those EVs, deserve to know how safe the vehicles they are riding in are.

Would release of the full test results from the e6 accident boost sales of the e6? Maybe not since I don’t even think the e6 is available for consumers to purchase in China yet.  But it couldn’t hurt, and might show BYD in a positive light.  Of course, BYD may not want to spend the money right now on more extensive testing. In late June, the Chinese press reported that BYD was cutting pay by 14% to save money.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lawrence permalink
    July 6, 2012 12:01 am

    No need to apologize as you raise important points here. Afterall the whole world is watching BYD because of its new foreign offices and their global aspirations. And so it makes sense to be as transparent as possible in getting to the root cause of this fire.
    What I find ironic is that just a short time before this accident, on May 23rd, BYD signed a cooperation agreement with UL Laboratories, the U.S. based safety certifying organization. Wouldn’t it have made sense for BYD to have seized the opportunity and invited UL to join them in an in-house investigation of the fire. That’s not to say that UL is necessarily the best qualified to conduct such a specialized task, but the publicity surrounding such an joint endeavor would have made BYD look determined and transparent in promoting safety in the area where it is so well qualified, i.e. electrics.

  2. July 6, 2012 3:58 pm

    Yes, it seems like a missed golden opportunity. Not a surprise–BYD has been so secretive about its battery technology (as I have repeatedly railed about..) that we really don’t know if its claims are for real, despite the stream of reports of how far various vehicles have travelled using the BYD battery.

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