Are Batteries In Electric Cars, Hybrids Safe?

Some industry executives concede that lithium-ion batteries might need more time before they're ready.

Published: 25-Jun-2009

Next month will mark another important milestone on the road to cleaner, greener motoring: Mitsubishi Motor (7211.T) will begin mass-producing an electric vehicle, becoming the first major carmaker in the world to do so. By late July, the Tokyo-based automaker will deliver its $48,000 electric i-MiEV minicar to businesses and local governments. The car, which runs 160 kilometers on a charge, will be available to Japanese consumers in the coming months. They will pay just $33,000 thanks to a Japanese government subsidy, but likely won't drive their cars off dealers' lots until April 2010. "With the electric vehicle, we will challenge global players," Mitsubishi Motors President Osamu Masuko told reporters at the i-MiEV's official launch in Tokyo on June 4.

Other automakers have similar ideas. Subaru, a unit of Japan's Fuji Heavy Industries (7270.T), plans to sell 170 of its $48,000 plug-in Stella electric cars this year. Nissan Motor (NSANY) will release its first model in 2010 and plans to start production in the U.S. by 2012. China's BYD Auto, which has been selling a plug-in gas-electric hybrid car to businesses since December, aims this year to release an electric vehicle that can go 300km to 400km when charged. The release of General Motors' long-awaited Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid is slated for late 2010. To help automakers fund their green car programs, the U.S. Energy Dept. on June 23 divvied up $8 billion in loans to Nissan, Ford Motor (F), and electric-car startup Tesla Motors.

Yet even as carmakers race to showcase these green vehicles, some experts are raising concerns about their safety. The worst-case scenario: thermal runaway, which can happen when a short circuit inside a battery sparks a chain reaction, causing overheating or a fire. In mobile phones, laptops, and other portable gadgets, thermal runaway can occur in 1 of every 5 million to 10 million cells, says Brian Barnett, a battery expert at technology firm Tiax in Cambridge, Mass. The incidence can be higher for the products of less experienced battery makers, he says. A laptop battery usually has six cells, but electric cars will likely rely on 75 or 80 cells, meaning they would be more susceptible to problems. Another difference: Cars move at high speeds and carry passengers. "It's not going to happen all that frequently, but the consequences could be catastrophic," says Barnett.

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