17 May 2019

Wheels on Fire?

This week Tesla announced that it is updating the battery software in some of its models following two of its cars catching fire - one in Hong Kong and another in Shanghai. The software changes are to Tesla’s Model S and Model X vehicles. Tesla’s announcement coincided with two forums in Graz, Austria discussing the safety surrounding the storage and transport of lithium-ion batteries the current mainstay of EVs. The first forum was Cheps’s fifth Battery in Focus discussion panel and the second event was Three Six Zero’s own Future Logistics Live conference whereby a knowledge hub workshop considered the issues around battery safety and related commercial issues.

Both events will be reviewed in forthcoming weeks but Tesla’s recent announcement only highlights that for the time being the automotive industry is relying upon a volatile and potentially dangerous battery device unless handled correctly by trained personnel.

Although other technologies are being explored such as sodium solid-state batteries currently the industry has to use and adapt the lithium-ion battery.

Some of the risks include electrical short cut, thermal runaway, fire and explosion, proneness to chemical reactions especially thermal danger due to abnormally high temperatures and chemical risk due to toxic liquids and gases.

The current legislation and regulations such as the international rules for transport by land, sea, air and inland waterway are co-ordinated by the UN, whilst EU Directive 2008/66/EC on inland transport of dangerous goods (ITDGD) requires the Member States to apply the provisions including the European Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road- ADR and The International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Rail- RID, to domestic transport, subject to local legal variations and provisions. Meanwhile, for instance, China has developed its own rules separate from UN regulations.

This begs questions about harmonisation and enforcement of rules where completed batteries, battery components or finished vehicles are being shipped across multi borders. The China Belt and Road is becoming a reality and highly likely that it will import from the East batteries or finished vehicles into the Western economy.

There appears to be an insufficient regulatory framework for the storage of batteries whilst dealers by law cannot handle lithium-ion batteries. No doubt systems and businesses will evolve to address the many issues. However, it will require tremendous investment and co-ordination when manufacturers are already hard pressed with investment costs of EV and self-driving vehicles as well as selling into an uncertain market whereby sales predictions for EV vary but no doubt will increase as market acceptance arises and anti ICE legislation bites.

The industry needs to ensure scaling up the ability to handle batteries in a safe cost-effective way. Ideally, for the rules to be harmonised but it is unlikely that governments will drive this arena given other pressing agenda items.

Aside from the safety issues, other areas of battery development will increasingly come to the forefront such as the environmental and ethical issues surrounding the use of rare earth metals, the costs and energy used to make batteries and what about effective recycling and second life use?

EVs are at a relatively early stage in their evolution- think of a mobile phone 15 years ago and look at how things have transformed in that time.

The EV market relies heavily on Asia, especially China, for battery manufacture. Will this trend continue or is there a move towards more localised cell manufacture and battery assembly? Is the European regulatory framework just too onerous to allow the construction of sites handling potentially dangerous and explosive materials?

CHEPs Battery in Focus will be reviewed in later editions as well as the Future Logistics Live discussion group. However, I suspect the drive for reform and raising standards will be industry-led. Whilst the industry will continue to take its responsibility we must also keep things in perspective as we have to deal with all sorts of risks every day to enable us to live our lives. Whilst safety issues are and will remain a great concern, the risks must be kept in context and avoid untold knee jerk reactions. That said there are in some instances volatility issues with lithium-ion batteries that require addressing. Events such as Chep’s Battery in Focus will help enhance awareness and possible solutions so that hopefully the words “This wheel’s on fire. Rolling down the road. Best notify my next of kin. This wheel shall explode!” just remains a great Dylan lyric.

Julian Wilkins

Postscript:The Advanced Propulsions Centre (APC) has announced its encouragement for the construction of the UK’s first gigafactory by the early 2020s.APC is working with raw material suppliers to establish a supply chain of UK-sourced chemicals. This illustrates a fast-changing environment concerning the evolution of EVs.

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