BYD's Blade battery is supposed to be the safest, but its EVs are still going up in flames in China - What is happening?
Hans · Jul 29, 2023 10:00 AM
If you form your opinions on BYD based on what the English-speaking world say, then BYD is the gift from the heavens. BYD is a trusted world leader in EV battery technology, and it’s now in Malaysia, with the cheapest BYD Dolphin selling for RM 100,530.
BYD’s lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) chemistry Blade battery is the safest in the world. Not even puncturing it with a nail or driving a heavy truck over one can make it burst into flames. Even when it does catch fire, BYD’s Blade battery design ensures that the fire will spread slower than other competing battery design.
To the West, BYD is seen as the following – an Asian alternative to Tesla; the company Warren Buffett bet on and won big; a Chinese company who overtook VW in China - the very market VW opened over 40 years ago; the upstart from Shenzhen whose EV know-how forced Toyota to learn from the Chinese.
Chinese speaking readers who actively follow mainland China's automotive sites however, will know that the situation is very different in BYD's home country. Ironically, the people who have the worst things to say about BYD are BYD’s own customers in China, while foreigners are BYD's biggest fans.
Curiously, viral incidents of BYD Blade battery-equipped cars going up in flames in China – something which BYD’s outlandish lab demos say is almost impossible – are glossed over in the West.
The same people who are very quick to vilify missteps of Chinese companies, or China's controversies in Xinjiang, will pretend to look away every time a BYD catches fire in China. So what's happening here? Perhaps the fact that the top-3 biggest shareholders of BYD apart from founder Wang Chuanfu, are Berkshire Hathaway, Himalaya Capital Management, and the Vanguard Group - all American funds - is a reason behind the positive PR for BYD in the West versus in China?
To dive a bit deeper on the subject, let’s get off the familiar English-speaking Google-Facebook cyber-verse for a moment, and enter the Chinese-speaking Baidu-Weibo half of the Internet world.
China is currently the world’s largest market for battery EVs. In the first half of 2023, the Middle Kingdom recorded over 2,093,000 BEVs sold, lead by the Tesla Model Y, with BYD being the best-selling BEV manufacturer. One in every 5 new passenger cars sold in China is now a battery EV.
As combustion engine cars on Chinese roads are replaced by EVs, reports of fires involving EVs are also going up.
Between 2020 and 2021, there were only 86 fires involving BEVs. But in the first quarter of 2022, reported fires involving BEVs suddenly shot up to 640 cases! This is according to China’s National Emergency Management Department, which supervises the Chinese fire and rescue services.
On average, Chinese fire fighters are called to put out 7 burning BEVs every day!
Guess which EV brand have the most cars going up in flames? Yup, BYD.
So prevalent are reports of burning BYDs on Chinese local news that Chinese netizens now call BYD cars the ‘Emperor of spontaneous combustion,’ a sarcastic reply to BYD’s claim that its Blade batteries are so safe that it will banish spontaneous combustion from the Chinese dictionary of electric vehicles.
Yes, BYD is the No.1 selling BEV brand in China and as the brand with the most BEVs on Chinese roads, it’s only natural for BYD cars to have a higher probability of slipping into the national news.
But it’s a weak defence because the raison d'etre of BYD’s Blade battery – released in China in March 2020 - is that it is so safe, that it’s nearly impossible for it to go up in flames. Not even driving a nail into one or being crushed by heavy trucks would cause it to short circuit and burn.
Chinese consumers now understand that real-world experience is very different BYD’s outlandish claims – suggesting that either BYD's lab demonstrations were rigged, or there is a fundamental design flaw with the packaging of BYD’s Blade batteries.
In the most recent fire incident involving a BYD EV, a very senior judge in a BYD Han DM-i was involved in an accident in April 2023 and was burned to death. Passers by had tried to pull him out of the burning car but car’s power-operated door handles – which should release upon impact – remained locked shut.
To be fair, the cause of the accident is still unclear, and the BYD Han DM-i, although using Blade batteries, is a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), which means that it also carries fuel.
The problem is even if you were to remove BYD PHEV models, there are still plenty reports of other BYD fully electric models catching fire, even when it’s parked and not charging.
BYD’s silence on these fiery incidents is also heavily criticised on Chinese social media.
With no official statement coming from BYD, various battery experts weighed in on the matter. The general consensus is that while the LFP chemistry used in BYD’s Blade batteries is indeed safer and have less risk of thermal runaway compared to conventional NMC (Nickel Manganese Cobalt) batteries used by rivals, that alone doesn't make BYD's batteries safer than competitor batteries.
Battery experts say that battery chemistry is just one of many other factors that contribute to an EV’s safety. The overall design of the battery packaging must also be robust enough to not be easily damaged by road debris, impact from hitting ramps or speed bumps, and the insulation materials must be good enough to resist premature ageing, which could allow water to enter.
Some experts say that BYD may have been too confident on the safety of the LFP battery chemistry that they hadn’t put enough thought into beefing up safety measures for the battery’ packaging – having sufficiently thick impact-resistant materials and protective measures between cells for example.
A recent summer season comparison test by a Chinese media Dongchedi pitted BYD’s models against other Chinese-made EVs, driving them on the hot desert, where ambient temperatures soared past 40 degrees Celsius, revealed some weakness in BYD batteries in high temperature environment, compared to Geely’s Zeekr and Huawei’s Avita.
The BYD Han – the company’s latest flagship model – achieved only 70.7% of the claimed 605 km driving range (CLTC). In first place is Huawei’s Avita 11 (76.3 percent), followed by Geely’s Zeekr 009 (76.2 percent). If it's any consolation to BYD fans, no Tesla models were ranked in the Top 10.
To date, neither the Chinese authorities nor BYD has made public the results of their investigation into the cause of these burning BYD EVs.
BYD fans however, say that a lot of these reports have malicious intent and were amplified by rival Chinese car makers losing market share to BYD. There could be some truth in this, but it doesn't change the fact that BYD's Blade batteries are burning even the company says it won't. The whys and the hows behind these fires, are still unclear.
As mentioned in our previous post, the EV world is very polarized, split not just along the ICE vs BEV camps, but the latter is also split along Tesla vs BYD vs everyone else camps. It's getting very hard to find a middle ground. Each camp is very vocal, they only see what they want to believe, and their respective communities have become a confirmation bias echo chamber.
Like Tesla, BYD has equal number of supporters and detractors.
Without conclusive forensics analysis, it is hard to ascertain if there is a malicious reason behind these BYD electric cars going up in flames, or if BYD is the victim of a smear campaign.
What is clear however, is that the Chinese government is treating BYD like it's the nation’s golden child.
When BYD’s proposal to invest USD 1 billion in India was rejected by the Indian government, China’s then top diplomat (now Foreign Minister) Wang Yi made a rare intervention on BYD’s behalf, encouraging India to “enhance strategic mutual trust” and “focus on consensus and cooperation.”
Also ironic for a company that presents itself as a solution to a greener world, BYD in China has been fined 13 times in 7 years for breaking various environmental protection laws. It is even engaged in legal tussles with residents living near its manufacturing plant.
Residents in Changsha claimed that poisonous discharge from a nearby BYD plant have been causing various health issues to residents nearby. In May 2022, the residents staged a protest outside the company’s Changsha plant.
Despite the eroding trust and bad public relations, sales of BYD cars remained strong in China. Between January to June 2023, BYD sold 1,098,409 units in China, becoming the No.1 auto brand with an 11.5 percent market share.
In 2022, BYD slashed its prices three times in response to a price war started by Tesla.