Safety roadblock for new-energy cars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am
 

There are only 330 electric cars running on a Hong Kong road network crowded with 600,000 drivers.

But with the world's auto industry leaders scrambling to bring electric cars to mass production levels, the city is taking a closer look at this greener mode of transport. One issue that will have to be resolved, however, is safety - particularly protecting the cars' powerful batteries from the risk of fire or explosion.

The crash last month in Shenzhen involving a BYD electric car that resulted in three deaths has thrown a spotlight on the suitability of the cars to modern roads. Beijing - which is set to ramp up new-energy car sales from less than 2,000 units last year to 500,000 by 2015 - is particularly concerned about the technology keeping pace with the increasing demand.

Last year, an electric car, with no one inside, produced by small mainland firm Hawtai Motor, suddenly caught fire on a roadside in Hangzhou. Separately, two General Motors' Volt electric cars caught fire in a lab test after being damaged. But the BYD crash was the first time someone was killed in such an accident.

Chan Ching-chuen, former head of the electrical and electronic engineering department at the University of Hong Kong and an authority in the field, said despite more than a decade of developments in the technology, the quality of electric car batteries and safety standards varied greatly.

'The electric vehicle is still very much in its infancy and the safety standards are far from perfect,' Chan said. But he noted some standards were high. Japanese electric cars, for example, were designed so that the thousands of small power units within a battery were cut on impact, minimising the risk of explosion.

Car repair expert Ringo Lee Yiu-pui said structural design was crucial in protecting a battery. 'Most carmakers put tougher material around the battery, but some use tougher materials than others,' he said.

Five electric car models are available in Hong Kong - Nissan's Leaf, Mitsubishi's i-MiEV, Renault's Fluence, Tesla's Roadster and a small-capacity MyCar by EU Auto.

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