I first heard about electric bicycles (aka e-bikes) catching fire when a writer for the United Kingdom-based newspaper The Guardian wrote a piece stating that in 2022 there were "about 200 fires and six deaths" in New York alone due to e-bike fires and that, in November 2022, an e-bike fire in an apartment "became an inferno that injured nearly 40 people and forced firefighters to evacuate residents using ropes." With a little digging, I also found that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found these fires concerning enough to send a letter to more than 2,000 manufacturers and importers stating:
From January 1, 2021 through November 28, 2022, CPSC received reports of at least 208 micromobility fire or overheating incidents from 39 states, resulting in at least 19 fatalities, including five associated with e-scooters, 11 with hoverboards and three with e-bikes. CPSC also received reports of at least 22 injuries treated in hospital emergency departments, with 12 involving e-scooters and 10 involving e-bikes over that same period of time.
Electric bikes have become popular as a cheaper and greener alternative to purchasing a car, and are especially popular with metropolitan delivery drivers. However, the lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries used in these e-bikes present new dangers and challenges not found in non-motorized bicycles. Namely, if the batteries leak, whether due to bad design or improper care, they can explode and combust.
"These bikes when they fail, they fail like a blowtorch," said Dan Flynn, the chief fire marshal at the New York Fire Department. "We've seen incidents where people have described them as explosive — incidents where they actually have so much power, they're actually blowing walls down in between rooms and apartments."
Let's look beyond the scary headlines to understand why these electronic bikes explode and what consumers can do if such an explosion hurts them.
E-bikes use Lithium-Ion Batteries
While the news likes to report on exploding phones, bikes, hoverboards, or widgets, the source of these explosions is almost always the same, the batteries that power them.
E-bikes, like those other products, get their power from the tiny but powerful Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. These batteries have been an essential part of developing microprocessors and creating portable technologies, and are by no means new. Variations of lithium-ion batteries have been around since the 1970s, and the precarious nature of the flammable chemicals has resulted in several recalls over the decades. Just consider the infamous Galaxy Note 7 fires in 2017.
So while these batteries have allowed for huge leaps in efficient portable technology, they are not without their risks.
How Do Lithium-Ion Batteries Work and (Sometimes) Explode?
In the most basic terms, a Li-ion battery is a rechargeable battery, which stores and releases its electrical energy through electrochemical reactions. The batteries contain lithium salt and organic solvents inside a liquid called electrolyte, and those organic solvents are flammable. This flammability and high energy production, unfortunately, put Li-ion batteries at risk of "thermal runaway".
Basically, the batteries are a cocktail of chemicals that can ignite when they mix and oxygen (aka the air) will fuel any resulting fire. More simply put, when they're functioning properly, the reactive elements never touch and the battery produces power. When the different parts of the battery mix, due to damage or a defect, they become a bomb.
There Are Five Main Things That Can Cause a Li-ion Battery Fire:
- Manufacturing Defects
- Design Flaws
- Low-Quality Components
- Charger Issues
- Improper Use or Storage
As with all products, manufacturing and design defects can cause products to operate poorly. However, if a pillow has a design flaw or if the manufacturer constructs the pillow incorrectly, it will not explode in the middle of the night, causing a several-floor-level fire in your apartment building. A poorly designed Li-ion battery could do just that. It is the same with low-quality components. A pillow made from scratchy fabric is uncomfortable, but a Li-ion battery made with cheap/poor materials is at risk of exploding.
To make matters worse, the severity of the fire corresponds directly with the size of the battery. Cars powered by Li-ion batteries produce raging infernos that test a firefighter's ability to extinguish blazes, while the battery in your cell phone will cause a small, brief, but intense fire.
What Options Do Those Injured by Electric Bike Fires Have?
Now that we know e-bikes have the potential to explode and cause fires, let's distinguish between individuals who suffer only property damage/minor injuries from individuals that suffer serious burns or fatalities.
If a victim's losses are minor, they can reach out to the manufacturer to request a refund, attempt to initiate a charge-back if they purchased the product through a credit/debit card, contact the Better Business Bureau to file a report, and/or contact their local Attorney's General Office to alert the office of the incident.
However, victims that suffer serious injuries, may have a viable product liability claim against the manufacturer. For these folks, it's probably a good idea to reach out to an attorney who handles product liability cases to examine their particular situation. While contacting a lawyer and filing a lawsuit may seem intimidating, this remedy affords victims several benefits.
First of all, and most obviously, a lawsuit can help victims obtain badly needed funds to help with stacks of medical bills and other impacts on their life. Secondly, if a manufacturer makes an unnecessarily dangerous product, it is accountable for that. Without accountability, companies have no incentive to change their ways, which means that it's unfortunately just a matter of time until someone else suffers the same fate as the victim who is already suffering.
In a very real sense, taking appropriate action can prevent another person from having to endure the serious injuries or death that victims have already endured. If any manufacturer uses Li-ion batteries in a device like a bicycle, that by its very nature will take a beating throughout its use, then that manufacturer is accountable if the product does not protect those batteries to prevent spontaneous combustion.