Surge in e-bike popularity raises concerns about fire danger

Last year over 200 fires were reported and at least six people were killed.
6:34 | 03/23/23

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Transcript for Surge in e-bike popularity raises concerns about fire danger
- Electric bicycles are quickly becoming one of the most popular ways to get around. The Electric Light Vehicle Association estimates roughly a million e-bikes were sold last year in the US versus roughly 288,000 in 2018. But the explosion in popularity is bringing an increase in literal explosions due to the bike's lithium ion batteries. Here in New York, 219 fires were reported due to the devices last year, killing at least 6 people and injuring 147. ABC's Brad Mielke, host of the Start Here podcast, joins me live now for more on this. Brad, I know you've been looking into this on the podcast. So what have you found? - Yeah, I found this so interesting, Diane, because we spend so much time talking about electric cars in this country, how they're revolutionizing transport, which they are. But did you know that more e-bikes have been sold consistently over the last several years than the number of electric vehicles in this country? Like, they are absolutely taking off. And there's a lot of reasons for that, right? Here in New York, we know that they've basically revolutionized the entire delivery industry, right? Because like, your local restaurant is no longer dependent on how long a delivery guy can pedal. But also-- DIANE: How strong are your quads? - Right, exactly, that used to be it. Like, you could only deliver where your guys could bike to. That's no longer the case. But even among cycling communities, it's now, you know, if you used to want to get out on your bike, but there's that big hill, and it's just kind of annoying. You go, I can't do that. I get too sweaty. Well, like, e-bikes have literally leveled the playing field. People can more easily make it out on their bikes. People are enjoying running errands on their bikes instead of their cars. We've seen the number of car trips go down for people with e-bikes, so insanely popular. DIANE: And with the e-bike, you can pedal also, or you can kind - Of-- there's a couple of different versions. Some are pedal assist, where like, it helps you pedal. You have to pedal to work-- to get the engine going. Others, literally sit back, throttle up, [IMITATES CAR] go up the hill. However, you're actually seeing more and more fires exponentially rising as these number of bikes are being exponentially sold. And that's because they rely on lithium ion batteries. And so like, same as electric cars, same as a lot of things like our phones, like a lot of things rely on lithium ion batteries. And they are susceptible to sparking. We've seen some of these spark though in buildings, and they've taken down entire buildings. You just mention the deaths. And so that's why you're starting to see more restrictions on even where e-bikes can be kept. DIANE: And New York Mayor Eric Adams was on GMA3 yesterday explaining some of these new rules for these batteries. Take a listen to that. - Number one, we're going to increase the level of enforcement to make sure those who are actually charging these batteries illegally and in danger, we're going to give them an order to cure the problem. The second is that we're going to have people-- encourage people to exchange the batteries, those illegal batteries. They should have like the code, the UL code, or make sure that they're real, legitimate batteries. And third, is our goal is to do education. DIANE: Brad, what does he mean when he says charging illegally? And how are people responding to this? - So this is really-- this is I think becomes the most interesting part of the story because we've been talking about green energy, right, we've been talking about transportation. This is where it becomes a socioeconomic issue. So think about who uses e-bikes the most. Often, it's people who can't afford cars or who need bikes to do their jobs. So you've got a lot of delivery guys. And e-bikes by nature, are susceptible to sparking, especially ones that are made cheaply, right? E-bikes-- e-bike batteries that you can literally, you can order these batteries from China. You don't know like where, what sort of manufacturing facility they were made. And so when people started to crack down on where these bikes would be kept, it was because whenever they were getting charged, they were lighting on fire. And so people started banning them from buildings. People said, hold on. We don't ban Teslas. They have these types of batteries. We don't ban iPhones. We're only banning them because like, immigrants with their e-bikes are keeping them here. That's the thing we feel comfortable banning. And yet, the thing that makes e-bikes more susceptible to this is when these batteries are made cheaply. You've seen like how pristine Apple's facilities are with the guys in like the white suits when they're making batteries. That's because-- just the matter-- just the amount of dust in the facility can affect whether down the line that e-bike-- whether that battery is going to ignite. DIANE: Wow. - So that's why like, cleanliness at the actual site of where these batteries are being made is really important. Well, among people who don't have as much money or who get these e-bike batteries made to them, they wear them out after a while, there's a whole cottage industry has sprung up around creating and recycling e-bike batteries. When they are recycled, they are much more susceptible to lighting on fire when they're being charged. So that's what Eric Adams is talking about is basically, using batteries that are not totally up to snuff, that are not made in a really secure facility, not made in a very clean facility, that are maybe made in somebody's garage out in Queens somewhere. And that's what we're seeing more and more. And so these politicians have this kind of socioeconomic issue of, how much are we willing to crack down on these things when we know it's the most vulnerable people who need these batteries the most? - Interesting. Congress is also considering a bill that would give consumers a tax break if they buy a new electric bicycle. So how are they reconciling the incentive here with the safety concerns? - This bill, by the way, would be huge. It would be 30%-- essentially a 30% discount off of an e-bike up to like $8,000. You could save yourself $1,500 as you're-- as you're buying a new e-bike if this passes. The safety though, has become a growing concern. As more of these bikes have been lighting on fire, the more this has been the thing. So you heard Eric Adams talk about UL. That's basically an industry group that looks at e-bike batteries. They're kind of an industry leader. And so they have specific certification criteria that you'd want to meet. So the Congressional language would basically be, your new e-bike that you're buying that we're going to help you buy has to meet these criteria. And if you're looking to buy an e-bike, what you want to do is look for that UL certification that shows you that this e-bike is made to quality standards and that it's more or less safe. - So we don't want you buying the cheap battery. We don't want you buying the recycled battery that's more prone to exploding. We want you to buy the more expensive one. And we're going to give you this rebate to help you do that. - That's exactly the thing is that these do become-- e-bikes are very expensive, and they're growing more and more expensive. In fact, the cap on this program would be like $8,000, because there are some e-bikes that cost up to $20,000. - Does this include e-scooters too, or is this just bikes? - We're just talking about the bikes, man. We're just talking about the bikes. There's a whole-- but I really do think that this is part of this sort of micromobility revolution that we're seeing, where more and more Americans are actually getting out of their cars and onto different versions of transportation. And that's really changing what we're seeing across the country. - A micromobility revolution-- I see a new series for Start Here, Brad. - Absolutely. - Thank you. And you can hear Brad dive into more stories like this on Start Here. Episodes drop every weekday at 6:00 AM. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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