Step into the street in most any major city and an e-bike carrying a commuter, a messenger, or a delivery is sure to whiz by. The zippy machines, which use electric motors to achieve speeds of up to 28 mph, are increasingly ubiquitous, particularly in New York City.
Their popularity has exploded, with annual sales growing roughly tenfold between 2017 and 2022, according to data provided by the industry group People for Bikes — an increase propelled in part by state and local rebates and other incentives. That growth has been accompanied by an increase in rider injuries and, in some cases, bikes literally exploding.
The federal Consumer Protection Safety Commission, or CSPC, identified a fire hazard in almost half of the 59 e-bike incidents that it chose to investigate last year. It also estimated that there were nearly 25,000 emergency room visits for e-bike injuries more broadly in 2022. The two-wheelers also have been involved in a spate of high-profile fatalities in recent years, especially in the Big Apple.
“[E-bikes] gained momentum unexpectedly,” said Matt Moore, People for Bikes’ general and policy counsel, citing the pandemic as a key accelerant. The result, he explained, was a boom of new bikes and new companies. “That rapid entry into the market really led to a huge growth in very low quality products.”
Although mishaps seem to be growing more slowly than sales, they are prompting calls for manufacturers to have their products certified by the likes of UL Solutions. Last month, New York City became the first jurisdiction in the nation to require exactly that, some 10 months after the CSPC sent a letter to e-bike companies urging them to seek such certification.
“I urge you to review your product line immediately and ensure that all micromobility devices that you manufacture, import, distribute, or sell in the United States comply with the relevant [standards],” the letter read. “Failure to do so puts U.S. consumers at risk of serious harm and may result in enforcement action.”
The industry has responded. The relevant standard in the U.S. and Canada is UL 2849, which was established in 2020, and examines a bike’s electric drive system for fire risk, charging performance, and performance in extreme cold and other conditions. (Separate standards apply to the batteries and general mechanical components). “We have seen inquiries about [UL 2849] testing and certification go up substantially,” a representative of UL Solutions told Grist. The 13 companies that have achieved certification this year is nearly twice the number seen in 2022.
The hope is that certification steers people toward safer bikes, and ultimately leads to fewer accidents. The move toward certification, however, won’t happen quickly or without bumps.
“I think everyone in the industry is aligned that we need to do something,” said Heather Mason, president of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. “The disagreements come down to what.”
One issue is that many bike manufacturers already certify their bikes to the European benchmark, EN 15194, because they sell far more of them there. And while UL 2849 was based on its European counterpart and the two standards may eventually harmonize, significant discrepancies remain. For example, the European standard has lower power limits for the motor than in the U.S.
Tweaking a design to meet the UL2849 could add time and significant costs. Moore says developing and certifying a drive system can cost $200,000 or more and take years.
“Anytime there’s a change in regulation, and you raise that floor, there are compliance costs,” he said. “It’s a cost that the industry is more than willing to bear.”
UL Solutions wouldn’t say what certification costs, but said it is far less than Moore’s estimate and usually takes only a month or two and once it has received all of the components. Once a company’s drive system is certified, it can theoretically use that hardware in multiple models. For a large manufacturer, the cost per bike can be relatively minimal.
But there are also potholes on the road toward certification.
Small but reputable manufacturers, for instance, may find the cost prohibitive. And, more immediately, it will create an inventory backlog of bikes that already are built to high standards but not UL2849 and can’t be sold in New York City, where the requirement took effect September 16. A UL Solutions or other seal of approval also won’t address every safety concern.
“The highest risk factors are crashes or falls on roads,” said Chris Cherry, a civil engineering professor and e-bike expert at the University of Tennessee. “A certified battery, or certified something else, isn’t going to solve those problems.”
But certification will allow consumers to shop more discerningly. An e-bike that meets the UL standard could be identified with a mark cast into the product or a sticker (though there have been reports of counterfeits). Bike shops should be able to identify models that meet UL 2849 as well, as would a company’s website.
“The end goal,” said Moore, “is to remove unsafe products from the market.”
This story has been updated to clarify that it does not investigate all e-bike accidents.