A situation in New York City has residents fired up. Literally.
During the early morning hours of June 20, a spontaneous fire broke out at The HQ E-Bike Repair shop in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The fire killed four, injured two more, and injured a responding firefighter.
The fires were caused by lithium-ion batteries, used to power e-vehicles of all kinds.
FDNY Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said that while first responders were able to pull many victims out and treat them immediately, “the sheer volume of fire is incredibly dangerous” and “can make it nearly impossible to get out in time.”
The danger of exploding “micro-mobility devices,” such as hoverboards and e-bikes, was documented in a 2022 recall alert from manufacturer Ancheer. Safety regulators warned the lithium-ion batteries “can ignite, explode or spark,” ultimately “posing fire, explosion and burn hazards to consumers.” Prior to the recall, Ancheer received six reports reporting “fire, explosions, or sparks,” with four of them resulting in burn injuries.
So why are e-vehicles prone to explosions and fires?
It’s due to thermal runaway, and several factors can contribute to this hazardous situation. One of the primary causes is physical damage to the battery pack, such as punctures, impacts, or manufacturing defects, which can result in internal short circuits within the battery cells. These short circuits generate heat and can trigger thermal runaway.
Overcharging is another factor that can lead to battery explosions. When a lithium-ion battery is charged beyond its designed voltage limits, it can produce metal deposits known as dendrites. These dendrites can create internal short circuits, causing the battery to overheat and potentially fail.
High temperatures are also a significant factor in battery explosions. Exposure to elevated ambient temperatures, prolonged direct sunlight, or operating the battery under extreme conditions can make the lithium-ion battery unstable, leading to thermal runaway.
In some cases, manufacturing defects can contribute to battery failures. These defects can result in cell defects or inconsistencies, which can increase the risk of thermal runaway.
One such manufacturing defect was behind a fire in February 2023 in a lot holding F-150 Lightnings that were awaiting final inspection. According to an NHTSA safety recall report, a manufacturing defect in the battery cells “may result in an internal short circuit when the high voltage battery is at a high state of charge… which could result in a fire.”
Per the report, “production process deviations at the supplier [where] the cathode aluminum tabs may contact the anode electrode material causing an internal short circuit” when the battery is at a “high state of charge.”
And as proven by the trend of fires in New York City e-bike repair shops, improper use or mishandling of the battery can raise the risk of battery failure with explosive results.
The latest deadly fire marks more than 100 e-bike-related fires, and 13 deaths in New York City alone linked to e-bikes have occurred in New York City this year with 13 deaths reported. This trend is more than double the number of incidents and fatalities recorded the previous year in the city.
Across the country, there were 208 reported micro-mobility device fires, with 19 deaths, between January 2021 and November 2022.
Consumer Product Safety Commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. reported that “deadly fires from lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes have reached a crisis level.”
While spontaneous fires are more well-known in e-vehicles, such as Tesla, it’s important to realize that smaller lithium-ion-powered vehicles can be just as risky.
FDNY Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn is encouraging people to report improper battery handling and storage in repair shops. “These fires go from zero to 100 in a second,” he said. “If you feel within yourself that there’s a dangerous situation, give us a call.”
Flynn went on to caution residents not to leave batteries charging unattended or overnight while sleeping and never to use extension cords to recharge them. So much for convenience.
So much for convenience. Welcome to America’s future, where cars and mobile devices can kill you…even if you’re not driving it at the time.