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Tesla and NIO Fires Spur Electric-Car Safety Checkups in China

June 17, 2019
Tesla said it was investigating after video of one of its cars bursting into flames in Shanghai spread on social media in April.

China is ordering carmakers to conduct checks on electric vehicles after cars made by Tesla Inc. and NIO Inc. caught on fire, spurring anxiety over the safety of battery-powered automobiles.

Companies need to check for potential safety hazards with battery boxes, waterproof protection in cars, high-voltage wiring harnesses, as well as on-board charging devices, the country’s industry and technology ministry said in a statement posted on its website. Automakers need to submit their findings by the end of October.

The order comes after a run of fires involving EVs in what is the world’s biggest market for the new technology. NIO -- a Nasdaq-listed electric car startup from Beijing with aspirations to rival Tesla -- said Friday one of its ES8 SUVs caught fire, the third time in about two months the model has been involved in an incident. Tesla said it was investigating after video of one of its cars bursting into flames in Shanghai spread on Chinese social media in April. Weeks later, there were reports of a Tesla Model S combusting in Hong Kong.

The Chinese ministry said safety checks should also be carried out on cars that have already been sold, with special attention paid to highly used vehicles such as cabs, according to the statement.

Lithium Batteries

Electric cars are increasingly using high-density lithium batteries to extend their driving ranges, as demand for the vehicles climbs. A mix of subsidies and favorable policies helped push Chinese EV sales beyond 1 million units last year, luring a raft of newcomers to the business.

In 2018, China recorded at least 40 fire-related incidents involving new-energy vehicles, a fleet that includes pure battery electric, hybrid plug-in and fuel-cell vehicles, according to the State Administration for Market Regulation. The watchdog has called for scrutiny of NEV quality and recalled more than 130,000 cars last year.

China isn’t the only place where EV fires are on the radar. Audi said June 10 it is recalling its first all-electric vehicle sold in the U.S. because of the risk of battery fire. About 540 E-Tron SUVs have been voluntarily recalled on risk that moisture can seep into the battery cell through a wiring harness glitch. Talks with German authorities about a potential recall in Europe are ongoing, Audi spokesman Udo Ruegheimer said last week.

NIO Probe

NIO is cooperating with an official investigation into an ES8 fire in Shanghai, with the cause of the blaze to be made public once the report is finalized, said Izzy Zhu, a NIO vice president in charge of user development. NIO its conducting its own probe into last Friday’s fire, the company said in a separate statement.

EVs are no more prone to accidents or fires than gasoline-powered cars -- and might be less so, according to a 2017 report by the U.S.’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But that report also notes battery technology is still evolving and there isn’t a consensus on safe system design.

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