New York couriers have to deal with a myriad of threats: cars, unstable weather, armed robbers and app algorithms that can “deactivate” them if they don’t rush to customers fast enough. Another recent addition to that list is their e-bikes on fire, writes The Guardian.
Powerful lithium-ion batteries used in small e-bikes are the cause of the growing epidemic of fires. There have been about 200 fires and six deaths this year, according to the New York Fire Department. Recently, an electric bicycle caught fire right in the apartment of a Manhattan high-rise, then almost 40 people were injured, and firefighters were forced to evacuate the residents with the help of ropes.
These fires can spread quickly and suddenly: “We have a fully developed fire within seconds,” the chief fire marshal said at a news conference.
This has become a daily challenge for delivery workers like Delores Solomon, a 64-year-old Brooklyn resident who has been working for Uber Eats for about two years. Solomon said she “lives in fear” that her vehicle could catch fire while charging or even while she’s driving it. Last year, while delivering food on her mobility scooter, Solomon hit a pothole, causing the battery to fly out and hit the pavement, where it burst into flames.
As the densest city in America, New York is a micro-mobility haven. Here, small electric vehicles aren’t toys for weekend jaunts but vital tools for the estimated 65,000 delivery workers trying to scrape a living through low-paying apps.
There are thousands of choices today if you want an e-bike, e-scooter or e-moped. Some of the high-end, name-brand machines are sold in beautiful downtown showrooms for well over $5,000. But many of the vehicles used by New York City’s workers come from unknown manufacturers and are sold online or through small shops for between $1,000 and $2,000.
Almost all of these vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which contain tightly packed cells that store energy in the form of flammable chemicals. Typically, the cells are synchronized using an electronic circuit called a “battery management system” and ensures that the cells do not overcharge or release too much power at once. But this careful balance can be disturbed by damage, wear or manufacturing defects, sometimes with dangerous consequences.
Lawmakers are also concerned. The authority that manages New York’s public housing proposed banning e-bikes on its grounds this year, but backed off after an outcry from low-income residents. On Monday, the City Council held a hearing where lawmakers introduced bills aimed at fighting battery fires, including a proposal to ban the sale of old electric bike batteries and to ban all batteries that have not been approved by a nationally recognized testing lab.
If passed, that measure would force riders to use batteries such as those certified by the Illinois-based Underwriters Laboratory (UL), which subjects e-bikes and their batteries to rigorous testing on issues ranging from their performance under extreme temperatures to how easily fire spreads between cells.