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[KH Explains] EV scare building up in Korea over a series of battery fires

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)
Early this month, an electric vehicle caught fire in Busan, sparking safety concerns among drivers of battery-powered cars.

It was an Ioniq 5, Hyundai Motor’s all-electric model, that went up in flames just three seconds after crashing into a highway toll gate.

The driver and one passenger in the car died in the accident, but investigations are ongoing to figure out whether they died from the crash or whether they were not able to escape from the fire that broke out so quickly.

While the case is being investigated to determine the main cause of the deadly accident, customer fears on electric cars appears to be building in online communities.

“I am not trying to criticize EVs because I myself own an EV. But rather, I am asking the automakers to improve battery-related safety. I know it must be difficult to find the cause of the battery catching fire, but I am sure they have an idea of what went wrong,” said a 31-year-old Ioniq 5 owner.

“I have been waiting for eight months for my new GV60 car to arrive, but after hearing about the recent accident in Busan I canceled my order because the GV60 uses the same e-GMP platform used for Ioniq 5,” said an aspiring electric driver in an online community for electric vehicles here.

On concerns spreading fast, some experts warned that it is premature to say that all EVs could be dangerous and that the investigation should be open to the possibility of human error.

“The recent accident is different from other EV accidents as the National Forensic Service found that the car was driving at 90 to 100 kilometers per hour and did not brake before colliding. Plus, the driver and the passenger did not have seatbelts on,” said Lee Ho-geun, an automotive engineering professor at Daeduk University.

“But safe driving is important when driving an EV. For example, Ioniq 5’s battery uses insulated antifreeze solution and the radiator uses normal antifreeze solution that can cause a rapid fire outbreak in case of such a collision,” he added.

The battery industry also said it is a fallacy of hasty generalization that fire risks of electric vehicles stem from the battery.

“There are no statistics showing that fire risks are higher for EVs than combustion engine cars. The industry is doing its best to enhance battery safety and one solution is to successfully develop an all-solid-state battery,” said an official of the Korea Battery Industry Association.

Statistics from the National Fire Research Institute of Korea show that in 2020, EV batteries were responsible for only 0.52 percent of recorded cases of fire outbreaks, while combustion engine cars were responsible for 1.88 percent of fires.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to work on enhancing the safety of battery technology.

LG Chem awaits mass production of its flame-retardant plastic next year for EV battery packs that would prevent fire from spreading.

SK On also recently showcased its S-Pack technology designed to block heat from spreading to the battery pack from cells in the event of a fire.

By Hong Yoo (yoohong@heraldcorp.com)
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