Electric bike batteries caused 200 fires in New York: “Everyone is scared”

NOTew York City delivery workers face an array of threats: speeding, unstable weather, armed robbers and enforcement algorithms that can ‘turn them off’ if they don’t rush to customers fast enough . Lately, workers have added another to the list – their e-bikes catching fire.

The powerful lithium-ion batteries used in small electric vehicles are responsible for a growing epidemic of fires. This year, there have been about 200 fires and six fatalities, according to the New York Fire Department. This month, an e-bike fire inside a Manhattan skyscraper turned into an inferno that injured nearly 40 people and forced firefighters to evacuate residents using ropes.

These fires can spread quickly and suddenly: “We have a fully formed fire within seconds,” the fire chief said at a press conference.

It’s become a daily concern for delivery people like Delores Sampson, a 64-year-old Brooklyn resident who has worked for Uber Eats for about two years to subsidize her Social Security benefits. Sampson said she “lived in fear” that her vehicle could catch fire while it was charging or even while she was driving it. Last year, while delivering food on her mobility scooter, Sampson hit a pothole, causing the battery to fly and hit the pavement, where it caught fire. “It was like a big pop,” she told the Guardian. “It freaked me out – like, ‘Damn, if that had happened on the bike, I would have exploded.'”

wreckage contains what appears to be a scooter or bicycle
Damage to the interior of a residential building that caught fire in the Manhattan borough of New York. Photograph: New York Fire Department/AFP/Getty Images

As America’s densest city, New York is a micro-mobility haven. Here, the small electric vehicles are not toys for weekend getaways, but vital tools for the roughly 65,000 delivery workers trying to make a living from low-paying apps.

There are thousands of choices today if you want an e-bike, an e-scooter, or an e-moped. Some of the brand name high end machines are being sold in nice downtown showrooms for upwards of $5,000. But many of the vehicles used by New York workers are from unknown manufacturers and are sold online or in small stores 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 by an electronic circuit called a battery management system, or BMS, which ensures that the cells don’t overcharge or release too much power all at once. But this careful balance can be upset due to damage, wear or faulty workmanship, sometimes with dangerous results.

In August, a lithium-ion battery fire that erupted after 2 a.m. killed a child and his mother in their Harlem apartment. One of the main reasons the fires keep happening is that workers have few options for recharging their vehicles. Many charge their batteries in their own apartment and hope for the best. Others rent a spot at one of Manhattan’s e-bike shops, where shops charge dozens of batteries next to each other on makeshift racks. Some people make deals with their neighborhood bodegas.

Sampson, who lives on the third floor of a brownstone, is afraid to charge her battery inside. So she uses two extension cords plugged together, dangling almost 50 feet from her bike parked in the front yard of the building — which she knows is still a risk. “Sometimes you can fall asleep, then it’s the next day, and thank God the battery didn’t explode or anything.”

Gustavo Ajche, the founder of Los Deliveristas Unidos, a leading group of delivery workers, told the Guardian he uses a parking space in a private garage which the garage has set up as a charging station. Ajche shares the space with about 20 other workers and has to pay $150 a month for her share. “We try to do our best to keep our batteries in good condition because everyone is scared,” he said.

Gustavo Ajche with his bicycle.
Gustavo Ajche with his bicycle. Photography: Courtesy of Gustavo Ajche

Lawmakers are also worried. The authority that manages New York’s public housing this year proposed banning e-bikes on its property, but backed down after outcry from low-income residents. On Monday, the city council held a hearing in which lawmakers introduced bills to tackle battery fires, including a proposal to ban the sale of used electric vehicle batteries, and another to ban all batteries that have not been approved by a nationally recognized testing laboratory. .

If passed, the measure would require 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 in extreme temperatures to ease of fire. spreads between cells. Manufacturers must pay a “nominal” cost to undergo testing, said Robert Slone, UL’s chief scientist, but “we see many manufacturers showing interest in battery certification.” UL sent a statement to the city council supporting the proposed measures, although it said a total ban on used batteries might be overkill: “When done correctly, batteries can be safely reused.”

Some of the most popular e-bike batteries are the UL-certified batteries and motors made by Bosch, which a spokesperson said “are designed for everyday use” and “will meet the daily demands of delivery riders.” But Bosch batteries are only found in high-end bike brands that are out of reach for many delivery people.

That’s why workers say what the city needs isn’t just more restrictions, but more assistance.

For more than a year, Los Deliveristas Unidos has been pushing for the creation of new bike charging centers in high-traffic areas of New York. Workers won a major victory in October, when Senator Chuck Schumer pledged $1 million in federal infrastructure funding to kick off the project in New York, starting with the conversion of an unused downtown newsstand. town. The Deliveristas have also offered to create compact solar-powered charging stations in car parks outside popular restaurants. But Ajche said the organization does not expect to see the first hub operational until next summer. “Working with the city is not easy,” he says. “Everything takes a long time.”

Adams on the podium with people wearing Los Deliveristas Unidos shirts behind him
Mayor Eric Adams joins members of Los Deliveristas Unidos to celebrate new protections in the food delivery industry in April. Photography: John Nacion/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

Sampson has joined an informal group called Safer Charging, which advocates the creation of a “battery swap” network inspired by similar systems in countries like Taiwan. This would allow workers to put their used batteries in shared outdoor charging cabinets and retrieve new ones, leaving battery maintenance to a professional team.

Another thing that would make a big difference for workers is better information. “Every fire happened, they say it’s an e-bike, but we don’t know which one it is,” Ajche said. “There is a lot of missing information.” What would be more helpful, he said, would be for the fire department to commit resources to testing and sharing details about which batteries are safe to use, so workers can make more informed decisions.

Ajche added that the city should pass laws requiring gig companies to pay delivery workers a “living wage.” According to Los Deliveristas, that would be $30 an hour, an amount that would help offset the substantial equipment and maintenance costs for deliverers, especially if they need to upgrade their batteries later. “You already have to invest almost $4,000 to be a delivery man,” he said. “And if they regulate battery types, the price of everything is going to get so high.”

Uber and Doordash did not respond to questions about whether they would increase payments to workers hoping to purchase certified e-bike batteries. But an Uber spokesperson provided a statement he sent to city council in support of the new proposals. “No one should have to choose between their safety and their livelihood,” the statement said.

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