Anyone in the e-bike space, be it an e-bike retailer, distributor, brand, etc., is aware that there is a major problem facing the e-bike industry. That problem is the occurrence of potentially catastrophic lithium-ion battery fires.
Lithium-ion batteries are the technological breakthrough that has enabled the development and proliferation of clean electric vehicles into our worldwide transportation infrastructure. Lithium-ion battery chemistry enables the storage of sufficient quantities of electrical energy, and the ability to deliver that energy with sufficient power to provide the range and torque necessary to propel vehicles from commercial trucks to electric bicycles in all sorts of practical transport modalities.
However, such high energy storage density presents a risk if the stored energy in a battery pack is released in an uncontrolled fashion. Unfortunately, there are several battery failure modes that do result in the uncontrolled release of energy in the form of a very hot fire that generates copious quantities of poisonous gas and is almost impossible to extinguish.
Fortunately, the frequency of these failures as a percentage of batteries in use is very low. However, with the rapid proliferation of e-bikes, due in part to their utility as a personal transportation, the occurrence of these fires is on the rise. Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that there are many unscrupulous importers importing cheap, sub-quality e-bikes to take advantage of the surge in demand for these remarkable products.
Sadly, significant property damage and loss of life have occurred due to e-bike battery packs failing in the field.
Industry is doing much to address this issue. A safer lithium-ion battery chemistry that will all but eliminate catastrophic battery failure is in the works. However, batteries featuring this new chemistry will not be commercially viable for at least three to five years.
It is expected that federal, state, and municipal governments will promulgate regulations requiring that e-bike electrical systems, including their lithium-ion batteries, comply with existing, voluntary safety standards that have been published by credible agencies with significant insight and understanding of the conditions that initiate catastrophic battery failures. It is commonly known that low-cost, poor-quality battery packs are most likely to fail. These safety standards, once mandated, will go a long way to keeping substandard packs from the marketplace.
Given that regulations of this nature take a long time to develop and implement, the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) is recommending that its member dealers, as well as ALL e-bike retail dealers, source electric bikes only from suppliers that can and do provide documentation of compliance with the now voluntary e-bike safety standard, UL2849. E-bikes that comply with UL2849 are significantly less likely to experience a lithium-ion battery failure, as the standard assures that the battery pack has been designed, manufactured, tested, and certified to the highest product standards currently available.
However, compliance with the standard does not absolutely guarantee that a battery failure will not occur. Conditions that may lead to a battery failure can be introduced through misuse in service. Improper charging, physical damage to the pack, and allowing a pack to sit in a fully discharged condition for an excessive period, are all service life experiences that can compromise the safety and stability of even the best lithium-ion battery packs.
In cooperation with Human Powered Solutions, NBDA has developed and promulgated best practices for e-bike retail establishments and e-bike consumers that provide guidelines that, when followed, help avoid the introduction of these potentially dangerous conditions.
Nevertheless, even under the best conditions, a lithium-ion battery fire can happen. The potential damage, injuries and, in the worst case, loss of life, will inevitably result in liability claims made by those impacted by a battery failure. Therefore, it is incumbent on every e-bike retailer to protect their business and livelihood with a comprehensive product liability insurance policy written by a top-tier insurance company.
It is also incumbent on every e-bike retailer to require that their e-bike product suppliers show proof that they also have quality liability insurance in effect. Just as every dealer must require that each of their vendors are delivering products in compliance with UL2849, dealers should insist on seeing copies of the liability policies held by those same suppliers.
In cooperation with NBDA, HPS will be offering more specific guidelines to dealers in this regard. We are consulting with quality insurance brokers and insurance companies to better understand how retailers can effectively protect their business in the event an unfortunate incident impacts one or more of their customers.
Please stay tuned for more important advice.
Questions? Contact Mike Fritz, email@example.com.