NYC Tries To Quell E-bike Battery Fires

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Regulation and encouragement for safe e-bike batteries is necessary to keep micromobility options safe.

On any given day in Brooklyn, you probably won't be able to leave your apartment without seeing an e-bike. E-bikes, e-scooters, electric mopeds, and other micromobility vehicles are good for the environment and popular among city dwellers.

Studies have shown that e-bike owners reduce their car use by half. One survey found that an e-bike’s carbon footprint was 80% lower than an electric car’s and more than 90% lower than a gas car. E-bikes also reduce congestion. Since establishing in 2018, Fly E-bike, a local e-bike retailer which assembles bikes with parts from China, has opened almost 40 stores in a 10 mile radius of the city. While the use of e-bikes and other personal battery-powered transit vehicles has surged over the last few years, so have fires caused by their lithium-ion batteries.

Despite the rarity of lithium-ion battery fires, their severity gives pause to anyone bringing an e-bike into their home. In 2022 alone, the FDNY reported roughly 200 battery combustions related to micro-mobility batteries. In 2021, these fires cost four people their lives, then six more in 2022. The injuries are in the hundreds. This year, two people have died already and 36 have been injured. In one particularly tragic incident, a woman and her boyfriend’s 5-year-old daughter perished with their three dogs. In another, a 67-year-old woman died from a fire started in a battery repair shop her neighbor was operating out of his apartment.

A bicycle food delivery worker rides his e-bike through heavy snow, Feb. 1, 2021, in the Soho neighborhood of New York. Photo: Robert Bumsted/AP, File

Unlike most fires, those from lithium-ion batteries cannot be stopped. If these batteries fail in a way that causes them to overheat, it can lead to a process called thermal runaway. Normally, a small amount of heat is released when a battery charges or discharges electricity — like how a laptop gets hot during use.

If thermal runaway is triggered in a battery cell, it will enter an uncontrollable and rapidly self-heating state. This can cause the lithium salts in the cell, which are highly flammable, to evaporate, venting out of the battery. If ignited, they form jets of flame that persist until all the gas has been burned off. On top of that, these gasses, along with other chemical fumes inside the battery released during thermal runaway, are, of course, toxic.

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Why this problem is becoming more prevalent, particularly in New York, is complicated. The industry itself is new, so safety standards are not legally mandated yet but legislation has been proposed. On March 2, the New York City Council passed a bill requiring certain lithium-ion batteries sold, like those in e-bikes or e-scooters, to be certified by UL Solutions, a safety science company. Selling non-certified batteries would be a fineable offense. The bill is waiting on mayoral approval. With the number of battery-related fires increasing year by year, many are convinced the bill will soon go into effect.

“I remember back in 2016, when the hoverboard fires happened, the city was able to collect all the uncertified hoverboards and handle that in a responsible manner,” said Ibrahim Jilani, Director & Global Industry Leader at UL Solutions.

The certification process, Jilani explained, begins when manufacturers or brands contact a conformity assessment company like UL to ensure the safety of their product. Then, qualified engineers employed by the assessment company rigorously test the product against a standard for construction, materials and design. Their rigorous mechanical testing includes rain, vibration and shock tests.

“If anything gets loose, then all of a sudden, now you have an unstable unsafe battery pack that, in the field, can result in a thermal runaway,” said Jilani.

If there’s an issue with the product, they inform the manufacturer allowing them to submit an updated version for testing. After the product has been perfected, a certification is issued. The issuing company then follows up with quarterly inspections to ensure the manufacturer is maintaining the standards. Jilani emphasized: “You only get the UL mark if we’re checking your factory four times a year.”

There are still precautions to take, however. Jilani urges consumers to use the charger that comes with the product because UL tests the charger as well (UL does ensure that using the wrong charger won’t cause thermal runaway).

Aside from that, it’s important to keep the product in environments that the manual specifies is safe. “Don’t put it in like a sauna or something, you know, or leave it in a steam shower. It’s not designed to be in those kinds of environments,” Jilani quipped.

UL also stated they were open to working with battery repair shops — the subject of a second bill banning the resale or repair of used lithium-ion batteries for micro-mobility vehicles. “No one’s called me yet,” Jilani said, “I would love them if they did. I have no problem with it. We’re independent, impartial […] we’re just trying to make sure that the product that’s entering the market is safe.”

The UL bill will regulate local retailers, but things get trickier when e-mobility devices from internet sites like Amazon, eBay, or AliExpress come into play. UL lists its approved manufacturers on its site, but more often than not, the manufacturer name does not correspond with the product’s brand name on the consumer’s end. Jilani has pushed for this in the e-bike industry at trade events. “They should put their company name and address that they’re using for the consumer sale as what we call the ‘UL listie,’ so they show up on the directory.”

New York Congressman Ritchie Torres expressed a need for safety regulations on a federal level, which may address the issue more holistically. In the meantime, Jilani suggests consumers ask the brand’s customer service or check the product itself for the anticounterfeit holographic label sported by everything UL certifies.

Although it’s rarely, if ever, listed on a product’s page. Most of the time, asking customer support works. VanMoof, a Dutch company that sells premium pedal assist bikes at a location in Williamsburg, said they meet requirements for UL. However, customer support associates don’t always know: I spoke with someone over the phone at Fly E-bikes who said they were certified. I found out from UL that they were not.

A man making deliveries rides an electronic bike in New York, Dec. 21, 2017. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP, File

To convolute the issue more, a network of gig economy workers has emerged over the years. Aside from being underpaid and underappreciated, the vast majority of them rely on e-bikes that are not UL certified.

Los Deliveristas have submitted a set of recommendations to the city council regarding this. Namely, creating affordability and accessibility to the certified batteries. In 2020, when New York legalized e-bikes that go under 25 mph, they were not regulated for safety.

“So that means that about 90% of the lithium batteries out there, especially those that mostly are used by Los Deliveristas, are not UL certified,” said Ligia M. Guallpa. Guallpa is the Executive Director of the Worker’s Justice Project that represents Los Deliveristas, a union of delivery workers employed by online food ordering apps. Guallpa believes the bill itself is not comprehensive enough.

Manufacturers pay UL Solutions an initial quote as well as for the quarterly inspections to help keep their products safe. It’s easy to see how this could affect the retail price of the lower-end devices used by many delivery workers struggling to stay afloat. Since most need two batteries to get through a shift, their battery investment exceeds $1,000, and they must replace them about every three years. Increasing the price might force some workers to buy products from online retailers, skirting the bill’s reach entirely, or, even worse, resort back to using gas-powered mopeds.

“Because this bill hits primarily Deliveristas, we’ve been advocating for a comprehensive plan to ensure that transition,” said Guallpa.

A safety surcharge tax on delivery app companies could fund this.

In addition, Guallpa said, Los Deliveristas are planning charging stations for e-bikes. Mayor Adams announced a hub program, the first of its kind, in conjunction with Los Deliveristas in October of last year. The plan involves using existing infrastructure like vacant newsstands to provide a place for delivery workers to rest and recharge their bikes.

“If the intention of these regulations is not only to make the use of micro-mobility safer but to prevent fires, one of the core roots of the causes of this problem is not just the batteries,” she said; it’s accessibility to e-bike charging stations. Guallpa believes that if low-income communities had access to these hubs, they wouldn’t have to risk charging their batteries in their apartments. UL has clarified, however, that all certified batteries are safe to charge at home, regardless of voltage.

So far, Los Deliveristas are not having much luck with their charging stations. Local residents came out to vote against the first one at a community meeting. Unsurprisingly, they found the prospect of a hub of unregulated e-bikes charging in their neighborhood concerning.

Another quintessential aspect of the issue not addressed by the bill is a citywide education campaign. As of now, Guallpa urges delivery workers to ensure that charging batteries are not left unattended overnight and are disconnected once charged. She stressed avoiding refurbished batteries, instead investing in their certified counterparts.

With the perceivable effects of climate change already encroaching, officials should be promoting the use of safe e-bikes. Transportation is still New York’s second-largest contributor to emissions despite New Yorkers traveling further than 5 miles only 33% of the time. E-bikes can help mitigate transit emissions. The city’s hurried solution to battery regulation, though, is incomplete. Last year, Denver initiated a rebate program offering up to $1,200 towards an e-bike purchase and another $500 for cargo bikes. This year, Denver found in a survey that 71% of participants used their cars less and 65% switched to biking daily. If the city tacked a program like this to the UL bill, it would help delivery workers and promote sustainability while relieving New York’s notorious traffic.

This article originally appeared on BrooklynEagle.com.


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