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Amid fire concern, NYC banning sale of electric bikes without UL-listed batteries

A new law already passed by the New York City Council will ban the sale of electric bicycles, electric scooters and other electric mobility devices that are not UL-certified. The move is part of an on-going push to improve e-bike safety and reduce the risk of fires.

The law, which is expected to be signed by New York City Mayor Eric Adams in the coming days, was developed in response to a spate of fires caused by the lithium-ion batteries used in many electric mobility devices.

New York City is home to hundreds of thousands of electric bikes, e-scooters and other micromobility devices. They are commonly used by delivery workers, food couriers and commuters as a quicker and more efficient way to navigate the city.

But when not constructed properly, lithium-ion batteries can result in intense fires. These cases are extremely rare, but the high number of battery-powered devices in NYC has led to a higher number of such fires.

These lithium-ion battery fires are more common when batteries are modified or repaired by untrained technicians, which has become a common practice employed to prevent needing to buy a new and expensive battery. Another factor that has led to some of these fires is the use of third-party and non-compatible aftermarket chargers that can overcharge a battery.

A five alarm fire that broke out in the Bronx earlier this weekend is just one of several that have resulted in significant property damage over the last few years. While rare, several lithium-ion battery fire-related fatalities have also been reported in NYC.

The new law will require electric mobility devices with lithium-ion batteries sold in NYC to be certified to the UL 2849 standard, which covers not just the battery in an electric bicycle but also the motor and drivetrain.

The president of the National Bicycle Dealers Association, Heather Mason, explained to Bicycle Retailer that she believes the decision will benefit the e-bike industry:

“I’m telling dealers to adjust their inventory. I know this is going to create a hardship for our retailers, but (the regulation) is in the best interest of the future of e-bikes. It will allow growth in the category while keeping people safe. It’s the right thing.”

NYC is one of the first cities in the nation to require such a standard, but the new law could be a sign of legislation to come in more cities and states, or even at a national level.

Panasonic Redwood cathode battery cell

Electrek’s Take

Safer e-bikes is always a good thing, and reducing fire risk through properly constructed batteries is imperative to improving the safety of micromobility devices.

However, it is important to keep in mind that e-bike fires aren’t just rare, they are exceedingly rare. We’re talking single digits out of millions of e-bikes, e-scooters and other e-mobility devices.

The headline Hundreds of thousands of e-bikes quietly finish charging again last night just isn’t as clickable. And so the teeny tiny percentage of fires get more coverage. It’s just like how 500 combustion engine cars catch on fire everyday in the US, but one Tesla fire is the only thing that will make the news.

Another consideration to keep in mind is that these e-bike fires are almost always the most junky of the models out there. These aren’t the typical e-bikes we often cover – they’re the eBay specials. When you see the aftermath pictures of these e-bike fires, it is nearly always an ultra-cheap product produced in a no-name factory. These are the bargain basement crap-on-wheels models that have made significant quality compromises to reach those low prices. And even those rolling dumpsters rarely catch on fire, it’s just the minuscule few that do that we end up hearing about.

So yes, I definitely support the idea of improved e-bike safety. But let’s all keep the scope of this problem in perspective. At risk of some type of moral relativism here, I’d say there are some significantly bigger threats to public safety rolling around that we could be committing this type of energy and legislation towards fixing. Around 300 pedestrians are killed by cars in NYC every year. So far this year NYC has reported two deaths from e-bike fires. While each is a tragedy, the difference in scale is obvious.

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