In January, all Boeing 787 Dreamliners were grounded after two planes experienced problems -- including a fire -- with their lithium batteries. Investigators are still working to determine what caused the batteries to malfunction. They believe that one of the batteries may have been overcharged, but the other had not.
Boeing is the first company to use that particular type of lithium-ion battery in its airplanes, but lithium batteries have become common in electric and hybrid automobiles. The automotive industry has also received reports of fires from lithium-ion batteries, including a fire in a Fisker Karma hybrid car and one in a Toyota Prius (which was short-circuited by salt water). The companies have since made changes to their batteries, but the question remains: Are lithium-ion batteries safe?
The Dreamliner investigation will help answer that question, along with investigations into automotive fires. Of course, an investigation is too late if someone is injured by the batteries while the investigation is undergoing. In that case, the companies that choose to use the batteries should be held accountable.
In Boeing's case, there is evidence that the company knew of the battery problems months before they grounded the 787s. All Nippon Airways, a Boeing customer, changed at least 10 batteries in the last year, including five batteries experiencing low charges. If it can be shown that Boeing knowingly endangered passengers by allowing the planes to continue to operate with the threat of battery failure, then Boeing may face fines.
The same could someday be true for auto companies. For the sake of the environment, we hope that there is some way to make these batteries safe for consumers. If, however, someone is injured by a battery fire or similar malfunction, the auto manufacturers must be held accountable.
Source: NBC News, "Boeing's battery woes could short-circuit e-cars," Paul Eisenstein, Jan. 24, 2013