When a fire started at an apartment building in Harlem last week, it spread so quickly that one resident jumped from the sixth floor to escape. Firefighters helped others climb through windows and down ropes. At least 17 people were injured, and a young journalist who lived in the building died. The cause: E-bike batteries that were charging in one apartment overheated and went up in flames.

It’s one of hundreds of fires started by e-bike batteries in the city since the use of electric bikes to make deliveries surged during the pandemic. Last year alone, the batteries started 267 fires, often in apartments where multiple batteries of questionable quality were charging simultaneously. But the city has now launched a pilot to help delivery workers avoid charging batteries at home. A group of 100 riders will soon begin testing the system.

At the first site, in Cooper Square in Manhattan’s East Village, new battery-swapping stations will let delivery riders pull up and swap depleted batteries for ones that have been fully charged inside cabinets designed for fire safety. Two startups, New York City-based PopWheels and Berlin-based Swobbee, each installed equipment. (PopWheels’s batteries are compatible with almost all existing e-bikes on the street; Swobbee’s will require a minor modification for riders who participate.)

[Photo: Swobbee]

Swiftmile, a third company, installed a bike rack where riders can plug in to charge. Users can stop on a 20- or 30-minute break to recharge their battery by 20%-50%, or fully recharge if they stay longer. “Our system is all about safety,” says CEO Colin Roche. “The system monitors the power and will cut off power if it detects any anomalies and also shuts power off once it’s completely charged.” During the pilot, all of the services will be free for participants, though if the systems are permanently installed, riders will later pay a fee for fresh batteries or charging.

There’s huge demand for an alternative like battery swapping, says Mohamed Ismail, who began working as a delivery rider when he arrived in New York City as a refugee after a harrowing eight-month journey from Bangladesh. “Everybody likes this,” he says. “Delivery guys need to carry two batteries if they want to work eight or 10 hours.” A typical battery charge might last four hours. With battery swapping, he says, “there’s no more headache. They can change it anytime. They don’t have to carry a battery.”

Ismail, who now works with PopWheels to help the startup connect with other Bangladeshi delivery workers, was also acutely aware of the risk of charging at home. His own roommate had to move after a battery fire at his previous apartment. “He was sleeping at the time,” he says. “He lost everything, but luckily he survived.”

Battery swapping for electric bikes isn’t new—it’s already common in parts of Asia. Swobbee, one of the startups, has systems set up in cities throughout Germany and is now also planning to build 200 stations in India. And as the number of delivery workers using e-bikes has grown to more than 60,000 in New York City, it makes sense that the city would also test this type of system.

The city worked with dozens of delivery workers as it designed the pilot, and will continue getting feedback to understand how well the three systems work: for example, whether they’re practical for long shifts or when workers have long rides home after work. Four other pilot stations will be set up in Manhattan and Brooklyn, targeting locations where some of the most e-bike deliveries happen. The city will also be monitoring the durability of the equipment throughout the six-month pilot, and working with the fire department to monitor safety.

In some neighborhoods, gas-powered mopeds are becoming more common for delivery, a DOT official told Fast Company. But the city wants to find ways to make electric bikes a viable option, both because they’re better for the climate and because they travel more slowly, so they’re safer to have on streets. Other programs to help are also in planning; the city council recently voted for a new trade-in program that will help delivery workers get safer batteries.

Multiple factors cause battery fires. Delivery workers buy cheap equipment because that’s what they can afford; some low-cost batteries or chargers are poorly made and especially prone to failure. Historically, the products haven’t been regulated, though New York City banned the sale of aftermarket batteries last year. But the basic chemistry of lithium-ion batteries means that there’s always some risk of fire. In the pilot, the swappable batteries use lithium ferrophosphate, which is safer, the city says.

Other options may soon be available. ZapBatt, another startup not involved in the pilot, designed a battery operating system that can help adapt existing e-bikes so that they can use lithium titanium oxide batteries, technology that’s unlikely to catch fire. “Our batteries can be used in any bike, which is the huge breakthrough with our battery operating system,” says Greg Slawson, the startup’s chief strategy officer. “Historically, using an alternative chemistry battery required a complete overhaul in electronics, wiring, motors, and connectors to work. Our whole purpose is to allow product manufacturers to adopt alternative chemistries without the need for modification from current models.” The tech may be in the market by the end of the year.

But because delivery workers can’t ride a long shift on a single charge, battery swapping stations could still be useful, and they could quickly work with the thousands of e-bikes that are already on streets. The new pilot is small—with five stations, it can’t demonstrate how a complete network would operate, with access to battery swapping or charging anywhere in the city. But it can help the city decide how much the new system should grow. PopWheels, one of the startups, aims to make it ubiquitous. “Ultimately, our plan is to totally end apartment charging in New York City,” says Baruch Herzfeld, the company’s founder and CEO.

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