E-bikes have been in the news recently for a reason nobody wants: Their batteries are sparking dangerous fires. One conflagration burned down homes and businesses in the Bronx in New York City in March, and another blaze at an e-bike store in Manhattan killed four people in June. Those fires are bringing additional scrutiny and regulation to a mode of transportation that’s been hailed as a promising climate solution. But they are also having an unexpected impact on conversations about the right to repair a bicycle, something generations of bicycle owners have taken for granted.
In recent months, People for Bikes, the national trade organization representing bicycle manufacturers, has reached out to lawmakers and officials in several states to request that e-bikes be exempted from right-to-repair bills. Those bills aim to make it easier for members of the public to access the parts, tools, and information they need to fix their stuff. The industry claims it’s a matter of safety, and that people without the proper training should not attempt to repair e-bikes — especially not the batteries. Instead, manufacturers want to see dead and broken batteries recycled, which is why they recently launched a public education campaign encouraging consumers to do so.
Recycling is a crucial step for dealing with battery waste sustainably. It keeps batteries out of landfills, and it can reduce the need for additional mining of critical battery metals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel. But for the e-bike industry to be sustainable over the long term, e-bikes also need to be repairable, since repair prevents waste and conserves the resources that go into making new stuff. To right-to-repair advocates, the claim that it’s unsafe for consumers to fix them is familiar: Consumer tech companies like Apple have said the same thing about repairing smartphones for years. When it comes to e-bikes, advocates worry that safe battery handling is being used to distract from another problem they say right-to-repair would help solve: Cheap, hard-to-repair e-bikes are flooding into cities around the country. These are the same bikes that sometimes have substandard batteries that experts suspect are at the root of the fire crisis.
“I too want people to go to safe repairers,” Nathan Proctor, who heads the national right-to-repair campaign at the US Public Research Interest Group, told Grist in an email. “But I don’t think monopolizing access helps at all.”
E-bikes are soaring in popularity, and for good reason. These battery-powered bicycles allow people to travel farther and faster than they can using an analog bike. They cost less than cars to buy and to own, take up far less space, and can be parked for free. Compared with gas-powered cars, e-bikes are incredibly climate-friendly: A recent analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the typical e-bike rider emits zero to three grams of carbon dioxide per mile pedaled, compared with 350 grams per mile driven in a crossover SUV. E-bikes also have sustainability and safety advantages over EVs, including smaller batteries that require less lithium mining and pose less of a danger to pedestrians.
But while e-bikes are clearly a sustainable choice compared with driving, many e-bike advocates want to see the industry become a model of affordable, accessible, and environmentally friendly transit. For that to happen, consumers need to be able to repair their e-bikes to ensure they last a long time. In addition to a bicycle frame, wheels, and a battery, e-bikes include various electronic displays and sensors, as well as a motor that powers the pedal-assist system. All of these components can break down and require repairs or replacement.
On battery recycling, the U.S. e-bike industry has made good progress. About five years back, a group of bicycle manufacturers came together to lay the groundwork for an industry-wide battery-recycling program. That program was launched on a pilot scale in late 2021. Less than two years later, it has 54 participating bicycle brands and more than 1,800 retail stores serving as drop-off locations for end-of-life batteries nationwide. (An e-bike battery is considered at the “end of its life” when it no longer holds a charge well, which might occur after as few as two or as many as 10 years of use.)
The e-bike battery-recycling initiative is funded like an escrow program, according to Eric Frederickson of Call2Recycle, the recycling logistics nonprofit that runs it. Participating brands pay a fee into a fund for every e-bike battery they import. Call2Recycle uses those funds to administer the collection, transportation, and recycling of e-bike batteries at several locations around the country. Recycling partners include Canada-based Li-Cycle, which has a battery-recycling hub in Rochester, New York; Redwood Materials, headquartered in northern Nevada; and Cirba Solutions, a battery-logistics company that is expanding into lithium-ion battery recycling. Call2Recycle also trains participating retail shops on how to safely handle the batteries, including identifying any damaged batteries to pack in secure containers.
To date, Frederickson said, the program has recycled nearly 6,000 e-bike batteries, or 37,000 pounds of them. Ash Lovell, the electric bicycle policy and campaign director for People for Bikes, which endorses the program, hopes to see that number grow. In May, People for Bikes launched Hungry for Batteries, a new public education campaign that seeks to raise awareness of how to properly recycle e-bike batteries.
While the recycling program started out with a sustainability focus, as e-bike battery fires in New York City and elsewhere started making national headlines, it became “very much a safety-focused campaign,” Lovell said. “That’s been People for Bikes’ big push over the last few months.”
But those same battery safety concerns are now placing bicycle manufacturers at loggerheads with advocates for independent repair.
In a letter sent to New York Governor Kathy Hochul in December, People for Bikes asked that e-bikes be excluded from the state’s forthcoming digital right-to-repair law, which granted consumers the right to fix a wide range of electronic devices. The letter cited “an unfortunate increase in fires, injuries and deaths attributable to personal e-mobility devices” including e-bikes. Many of these fires, People for Bikes claimed in the letter, “appear to be caused by consumers and others attempting to service these devices themselves,” including tinkering with the batteries at home. Before Hochul signed the right-to-repair bill, it was revised to exempt e-bikes.
Asked for data to back up the claim that e-bike fires were being caused by unauthorized repairs, Lovell said that it was “anecdotal, from folks that are on the ground in New York.” A spokesperson for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, told Grist that battery fires can be the result of physical, electrical, or thermal damage to the battery, as well as “manufacturing defects.” Last December, the CPSC sent a letter to numerous e-bike manufacturers calling on them to ensure their products comply with voluntary industry safety standards for batteries and other electronic systems.
The CPSC spokesperson declined to comment on the role that e-bike, or e-bike battery, repair might be playing in the recent fires. The New York City Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“There’s no training on battery repair, that I know of, within the bike industry,” said Ryan Waddell, who recently worked as a lead mechanic at the nonprofit e-bike shop GoodTurnCycles, based in Colorado. “If something happens with a name-brand manufacturer [battery], they’ll usually want the battery shipped back” so it can be replaced.
What New York’s right-to-repair law would have done is increase access to parts, tools, and information that manufacturers only make available to select e-bike dealers. For example, e-bike component manufacturer Bosch produces a diagnostic reader that helps identify components that require a reset or replacement, but you have to be a Bosch-certified repair shop to purchase it. Some manufacturers also offer authorized shops, but not consumers, the ability to do major software updates on their systems. And e-bike brands often only sell components, like the motor controller that manages the amount of voltage going to the motor, to dealers of their choosing.
“There’s huge interest” in fixing e-bikes, said Kyle Wiens, CEO of the online repair guide site iFixit. But outside of manufacturers and specialized shops, “no one knows how.”
Wiens said that in addition to making spare parts and repair guides available, the e-bike industry needs to do a better job designing its products to be repairable. Across the industry, he says, there’s very little standardization in terms of parts. Waddell agreed.
“With e-bikes, nothing’s really standardized,” he said. That means that when a crucial component, like the controller, breaks down, it can be tough to find replacements — especially if that model of e-bike is no longer made.
Right-to-repair laws could also help remediate what several industry observers described as a dismal repair scene for the direct-to-consumer e-bikes being sold online. These bikes tend to be cheaper than those made by industry leading brands like Trek and Rad Power Bikes, and they tend to break down more quickly. These are often the same bikes whose batteries don’t meet industry safety standards and may pose a greater fire risk. John Mathna, who runs the e-bike repair shop Chattanooga Electric Bike Co., says that many online e-bike companies offer “virtually no support” when there’s a problem.
“I’ve never seen a repair manual for any online bike,” Mathna said. “Many independent repair shops won’t touch them.”
Right-to-repair bills won’t solve all of the e-bike industry’s repairability issues, and they won’t end the debate over safe battery repair. But Wiens believes these bills would be a “big help” in terms of forcing out information the public needs to repair their e-bikes.
E-bike riders in Minnesota may soon find out if that’s true: In May, Governor Tim Waltz signed the nation’s broadest right-to-repair bill yet. Unlike in New York, Minnesota’s version of the law, which goes into effect in 2024, does not exempt e-bikes.
Lovell, of People for Bikes, said she believes the bill’s sponsors “weren’t totally aware of the issues of including e-bikes in right to repair,” and that the organization is “speaking to some of the legislators about the issue currently.” Minnesota Representative and bill sponsor Peter Fischer confirmed in an email to Grist that industry advocates reached out to him after the bill became law “asking for an exemption for e-bikes.”
“I did tell the folks I am open to meeting with them and hearing what they had to say,” Fischer said. “This does not mean I would support an exemption for them.”
Wiens, from iFixit, had a stern warning for e-bike manufacturers about attempting to evade compliance with the bill. “If they get a carveout in Minnesota,” he said, “we’ll introduce five bills next year targeting them specifically. It’s unacceptable.”