Fault Found in Battery Pack of Flaming China Taxi

By · June 10, 2011

Zotye Auto EV SUV

Zotye's electric SUV, as shown last year in Texas.

Back in April, an EV produced by Zotye Auto, a privately owned Chinese auto maker, burst into flames while in use as a taxi in the east China city of Hangzhou. 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, suggests it is a lot harder to produce an electric vehicle than China’s automakers—or at least Zotye—imagined. And it confirms that Chinese companies producing EVs need to do a lot of testing before they put them on the road for general use.

In the U.S., electric cars, such as the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt, have been receiving very high scores for vehicle safety. The problems at Zotye underscore how far Chinese automakers need to come to match the superlative safety rankings of today’s new electric cars from major global automakers.

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 story in the local press, 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.

Readers of PluginCars.com know that EV production is challenging for start-ups. Even if the battery cell is good, combining multiple cells to create a module is hard. Then there’s managing temperature. And getting the battery pack to talk to and work with the rest of the car’s systems requires a lot of research and testing. Battery management systems were a weakness in China’s EV segment identified in an excellent report put out in June 2010 by InterChina Consulting in Beijing.

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.

Green Automotive Co., 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 its battery technology is 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.

Several of the Zotye EVs are being tested for Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) compliance at Roush Industries, 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 investigate the impact from larger vehicles. Hopefully, it will also test the safety of its batteries.

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