Last June, a battery explosion caused a fire at an e-bike shop in New York City. Tragically, four people who were sleeping in apartments above the store lost their lives due to the billowing smoke.
As e-bikes have become more common, so have the incidents of fires and deaths caused by the batteries that power them. This has led to a call for improved regulations on the manufacturing, sale, charging, and storage of these batteries.
Eric Adams’s E-Bike Crackdown
Fire departments and public officials, particularly those in New York City, are urging the US Consumer Product Safety Commission to establish national safety standards and confiscate non-compliant imports at the border.
The goal is to remove unsafe e-bikes and poorly manufactured batteries from the streets. Earlier this year, New York Mayor Eric Adams told reporters, “We need real action, not only on the state level, but on the federal level.”
As the New York mayor lobbies for battery import restrictions, he’s also introducing a raft of new e-bike laws.
The most notable of these is Local Law 39, which is scheduled to take effect on September 16. This law will restrict the sale, lease, or rental of e-bikes and their batteries that fail to meet the safety criteria established by the Underwriters Laboratories or the Fire Department of the City of New York.
Given that New York City has more e-bikes on its streets than any other place in the US, it has become the epicenter of battery-related fires. This year alone, there have been 100 such fires, resulting in 13 deaths. This is already more than double the number of fatalities compared to last year.
Nationally, there have been over 200 reported battery-related fires to the commission from 39 states in the past two years. These incidents have resulted in 19 deaths.
Other Initiatives to Stop E-Bike Fires
Last month, Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill that aims to establish obligatory safety standards for e-bikes and their batteries. Schumer emphasized that the absence of mandatory standards has led to an influx of poorly made batteries in the US, resulting in an increased risk of fires.
Additionally, New York City officials announced the receipt of a $25 million federal grant for the installation of e-bike charging stations throughout the city. This grant will help reduce the risk of fires.
Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh emphasizes that e-bike battery fires are not typical. The batteries do not smolder but rather explode.
As a result of the fire hazard, some residential buildings have prohibited the use of e-bikes. The New York City Housing Authority initially attempted to ban e-vehicle ownership and charging in all of its 335 developments. However, it later reversed the decision following protests from delivery workers.
The Growing Popularity of E-Bikes
The use of e-bikes significantly increased in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic as people relied more on food delivery services for their meals and groceries. In light of the numerous fires, delivery workers like Lizandro Lopez are taking increasing safety precautions. Lopez now makes sure to disconnect his e-bike battery as soon as it’s charged.
According to Los Deliveristas Unidos, an organization representing app-based delivery workers in New York, less than 10% of e-bikes sold in the city are considered safe by independent evaluators like UL Solutions.
According to the Light Electric Vehicle Association, over 880,000 e-bikes were imported into the US in 2021. This number was double the previous year’s total and triple the number in 2019.
How E-Bike Batteries Can Become Safer
E-bike batteries function on the same principle as lithium-ion batteries found in cellphones, laptops, and electric cars.
Initially, these products were prone to overheating. However, tighter regulations, safety standards, and compliance testing have significantly reduced the risk of fires in such devices. Robert Slone, the senior vice president and chief scientist for UL Solutions, believes the same can be done for e-bike batteries.
Matt Moore, the general and policy counsel for the PeopleForBikes Coalition, explains that these inexpensive aftermarket batteries lack proper testing and regulation. In an interview with Fortune, Moore noted, “Even if there was a regulation, there will still be the ability of foreign sellers and manufacturers to send these products into the United States.”
Image Source: Shawn T. Moore, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Image cropped.