Why the rise of e-bikes raises the fear of fire

  • By Christine Ro
  • Technology reporter

Image source, Getty Images

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This e-bike caught fire in New York last year

When Ollie, a delivery driver in York, England, got his first e-bike in 2022, it was a bit of a splurge. He bought it at a discounted rate negotiated by his delivery company.

Even with the discount, it made him £1,000.

“The biggest problem is that e-bikes are expensive, and bicycles with safe batteries are extremely expensive. So many people opt for cheaper, less reliable and often dangerous batteries,” says Ollie.

Although he was initially tempted by cheaper models, he ultimately decided that investing in a better e-bike would pay off in terms of “greater range, safer batteries, easier access to repairs and a solid warranty.”

While that may have been true, it also made his bike an attractive target: his e-bike was recently stolen outside a supermarket.

He has no plans to purchase a replacement.

“If I spent £1,000 on an e-bike or bought a bike that stood out, I’d be shooting myself in the foot,” says Ollie.

The market for electric bicycles, scooters and mopeds is expanding, which is a positive trend for reducing CO2 emissions. Research shows that they have a low carbon footprint.

Image source, Equivalent commuter project

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In the US, the Equitable Commute Project helps people find safer cycling

“E-bikes are the most promising equitable climate solution in the transportation space that we have seen,” said Melinda Hanson, co-founder of the Equitable Commute Project. This organization helps lower-income New Yorkers gain access to e-bikes, such as through events where delivery people can trade in their non-certified e-bikes for new, discounted bikes that meet safety standards.

Insurer Aviva has seen claims from customers “relating to fires caused by rechargeable e-bikes exploding while charging, including claims relating to defective e-bike batteries and second-hand purchased e-bikes,” says Hannah Davidson , a senior underwriting manager. for Aviva.

Aviva reports that 71% of adults surveyed in Britain were unaware of the signs that a lithium-ion battery, the type found in e-bikes and e-scooters, is about to fail. These warning signs include heating, leaking, swelling, and unusual smells and sounds.

Fires caused by lithium-ion batteries are brutal. “These fires are not so much traditional fires. They are explosive and involve a lot of gas,” explains Robert Slone, senior vice president and chief scientist of UL Solutions, a safety science company.

These fires also spread incredibly quickly, making it challenging for firefighters to respond in time.

Image source, London Fire Brigade

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Lithium battery fires can cause a lot of damage

Due to the rapid rise of e-bikes, regulations have lagged behind the market. In Britain, for example, there is a lack of regulation for e-bike chargers or kits to convert standard bicycles to electric bicycles. And in many places a shadowy international market for e-bike parts is flourishing online.

Incompatible and uncertified batteries are a major contributor to fire risks. In New York City, “one of the main problems with the most popular battery model out there today is that it’s really overrun with counterfeit batteries,” Ms. Hanson explains.

Third-party batteries are risky because “the way to ensure these bikes are as safe as possible is to make sure the battery, motor and charger are all designed to work together.”

Even if an e-bike kit is safe at the point of sale, subsequent changes can cause incompatibility. Mr Slone explains: “It could be a perfectly safe battery pack, but if it’s an improper charger, that perfectly safe battery pack could pose a very significant safety risk and go into what’s called a thermal flood.”

Thermal runaway is a type of explosive chain reaction in which a cell in a lithium-ion battery overheats, which then spreads to the many other cells in the battery.

But for those on tight incomes (like the delivery drivers who earn less than minimum wage), manufacturer-approved parts and reputable repair shops can be out of reach. Also impractical for many is charging outdoors or in a purpose-built facility.

For cyclists who have no alternative to charging their e-bike at home, there are ways to limit fire risks. “Don’t block the exit to your home,” Mr. Slone emphasizes.

To give people a chance to escape, any means to slow the spread of fire or toxic gas can help. “Even if someone doesn’t have a dedicated storage closet, if they have a room that’s closed off with doors that are away from where they sleep, that can be safer than leaving them in some sort of communal area,” says Mr Slone. Keeping e-bikes away from flammable materials can also help.

The London Fire Brigade has advised motorcyclists to allow their batteries to cool before charging, charge on flat, hard surfaces, avoid extreme temperatures and keep fire alarms in good working order.

Image source, London Fire Brigade

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Fire safety experts urge caution when charging e-bikes

Another piece of advice often given is to never leave a rechargeable battery unattended, especially overnight.

For a delivery person working a 14-hour shift, “it would be the most normal thing in the world to come home at the end of your shift, hook up your bike… at the door, and go to bed” , said Mr. Slone. notes. But it can have tragic consequences.

In response, rules have emerged, especially in the past year. China, a major exporter of e-bikes and batteries, recently implemented national safety standards for chargers and electrical systems for e-bikes.

In New York City, e-bikes and batteries sold or rented must now be certified to the safety standards of UL Standards and Engagement, the nonprofit parent organization of Mr. Slone’s company. These standards cover aspects such as the risk of electric shock and the safe storage of batteries.

Image source, UL Solutions

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Governments are introducing higher safety standards for e-bikes

“Getting these safer bikes and safer batteries with intelligent battery management systems will go a long way to ensuring safety as these batteries tend to stop trying to consume energy,” Ms Hanson notes. “If there is a problem, they automatically shut themselves down, reducing the risk.”

While some landlords have responded to fire risks by banning e-bikes in apartments altogether, a new law in California allows a renter to store and charge one e-bike or other personal micromobility device indoors, provided it meets certain meets safety standards.

Mr Slone believes it would be groundbreaking “to have standards that cover charging facilities so that people don’t have to take the battery pack or the bike to where they live”.

Charging hubs, where many models of electric two-wheelers can be charged, are becoming more common in some Asian countries. This also applies to battery swap boxes, where riders can replace a dead battery with a charged battery that is compatible with their vehicle.

Ollie, who charged his battery in the living room of the student house he shared with two other people, says: “If the batteries on e-bikes were synchronized and there was a place to exchange them during the ride, this would be too many are great.”

Rather than spreading fear to deter people from e-bikes, reasonable warnings and supporting infrastructure would allow cities to leverage the many benefits of e-bikes while protecting lives. Funding should come from delivery companies, major food chains and governments, Ms Hanson believes.

“This is a technology well worth protecting… and worth investing in for our future,” Ms Hanson emphasizes.

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