E-bike batteries have caused 200 fires in New York: ‘Everyone’s scared’ – The Guardian US | CarTailz

NNew York City delivery workers must contend with a range of threats: speeding cars, unsettled weather, armed robbers, and app algorithms that can “disable” them if they’re not rushing to customers. Recently, workers added another to the list – their electric bikes bursting into flames.

The powerful lithium-ion batteries used in small electric vehicles are responsible for a growing fire epidemic. There have been about 200 fires and six deaths this year, according to the New York Fire Department. This month, an e-bike fire at a Manhattan high-rise spiraled into an inferno, injuring nearly 40 people and forcing firefighters to evacuate residents with ropes.

These fires can spread quickly and suddenly: “We have a full-fledged fire within seconds,” the chief fire marshal said at a news conference.

That has become a daily worry for delivery drivers like Delores Sampson, a 64-year-old Brooklyn resident who has been working for Uber Eats for about two years to subsidize her Social Security benefits. Sampson said she “lives in fear” that her vehicle could catch fire while charging or even while she is driving it. Last year, while delivering groceries, Sampson hit a pothole with her mobility scooter, causing the battery to fly out and hit the sidewalk, where it burst into flames. “It was like a big popping noise,” she told the Guardian. “It scared me — like, ‘Damn, if that happened on the bike, I would have been blown up.'”

Wreck contains what appears to be a scooter or bicycle
Damage at an apartment building that caught fire in the Manhattan borough of New York. Photo: New York Fire Department/AFP/Getty Images

As the densest city in America, New York is a micro-mobility paradise. Here, small electric vehicles are not toys for weekend getaways, but essential tools for the estimated 65,000 delivery drivers trying to make a living from low-paying apps.

There are thousands of options today if you want an e-bike, e-scooter or e-moped. Some of the high-end branded machines sell for well over $5,000 in beautiful downtown showrooms. 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 battery packs, which contain tightly packed cells that store energy as combustible chemicals. Typically, the cells are kept in sync by an electronic circuit called a battery management system or BMS, which ensures the cells are not overcharging or giving off too much energy at once. But this careful balance can be disrupted by damage, wear and tear, or faulty manufacture, sometimes with dangerous consequences.

In August, a lithium-ion battery fire that broke out after 2 a.m. killed a child and his mother at their Harlem apartment. A major reason why fires continue to occur is that workers have few opportunities to charge their vehicles. Many charge their batteries in their own homes and hope for the best. Others rent a spot at one of Manhattan’s e-bike shops, where shops charge dozens of batteries side-by-side on makeshift racks. Some people do business with their bodegas in the neighborhood.

Sampson, who lives on the third floor of a brownstone, is afraid to charge her battery indoors. So she uses two extension cords plugged into each other, dangling nearly 50 feet from her bike, which is parked in the building’s front yard — which she knows is still a risk. “Sometimes you might fall asleep and 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 prominent consortium 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 his share. “We’re trying our best to keep our batteries in good condition because everyone is scared,” he said.

Gustavo Ajche with his bike.
Gustavo Ajche with his bike. Photo: Courtesy of Gustavo Ajche

Legislators are concerned too. The agency that manages New York’s public housing proposed an e-bike ban on its property this year, but backed down after an outcry from low-income residents. On Monday, the city council held a hearing where lawmakers announced legislation to tackle the battery fires, including a proposal to ban the sale of used electric vehicle batteries and another to ban all batteries not approved by a state-approved testing laboratory .

If passed, this measure would force riders to use batteries certified by the Illinois-based Underwriters Laboratory (UL), which subjects e-bikes and their batteries to rigorous testing ranging from their performance in extreme temperatures up to to the fire hazard spreads between cells. Manufacturers have to pay a “nominal” cost to undergo the testing, said Robert Slone, UL’s chief scientist, but “we’re seeing many manufacturers showing interest in certifying the batteries.” UL sent a statement to the City Council supporting the proposed measures, although it said a total ban on used batteries might be overkill: “If done right, batteries can be safely reused.”

Some of the most respected e-bike batteries are Bosch’s UL-certified batteries and motors, which a spokesman says are “designed for everyday use” and “meet the day-to-day demands of delivery people.” But Bosch batteries can only be found in high-quality bicycle brands, which are unattainable for many delivery people.

Because of this, workers say what is needed from the city is not just new restrictions, but more support.

For more than a year, Los Deliveristas Unidos has been pushing for the creation of new bike charging stations in high-traffic areas of New York. Workers scored a major victory in October when Senator Chuck Schumer pledged $1 million in federal infrastructure funding to start the project in New York City, beginning with the remodeling of an unused downtown newsstand. Deliveristas have also suggested setting up compact solar-powered charging stations in parking lots in front of popular restaurants. But Ajche said the organization doesn’t expect to have the first hub operational before next summer. “Working with the city is not easy,” he said. “Everything takes a lot of time”

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

Sampson has joined an informal group called Safer Charging, which is campaigning for the creation of a “battery swapping” network modeled on similar systems in countries like Taiwan. That would allow workers to dump their spent battery packs into shared outdoor charging cabinets and grab new ones, leaving battery maintenance to a professional team.

Another thing that would make a big difference for workers is better information. “Each fire happened, they say it’s an e-bike, but we don’t know which one it is,” Ajche said. “A lot of information is missing.” It would be more useful, he said, if the fire department provided resources to test and share details about which batteries are safe to use so workers could make more informed decisions.

Ajche added that the city should pass legislation 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 delivery workers’ significant equipment and maintenance costs, especially if they later need to upgrade their batteries. “You already have to invest almost $4,000 to become a delivery worker,” he said. “And when they regulate battery types, the price of everything becomes so high.”

Uber and Doordash didn’t respond to questions about increasing payments to workers hoping to buy certified e-bike batteries. However, an Uber spokesman issued a statement that he sent to the 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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