To E-Bike or Not to E-Bike?

When it comes to e-bikes, it's the wild, wild West out there.

I recently went on a motorcycle tour of Route 66. It was a great ride, albeit a hot one. We stopped at several motorcycle shops on the way. Each one seemed to be doing well, and everyone was happy. Of course, it was summer.

I noticed in most shops, there was a cluster of e-bikes in a corner. I always made sure to ask about them. Pretty well every shop we visited had them on sale — some even at 50% off. Apparently, they were not selling well. It seems that powered bicycles are not selling in motorcycle shops. Is it because motorcyclists don’t ride bicycles? I know a lot who do ride both. Or, is it because the two cultures don’t mix? Perhaps. I think it’s because bicyclists want to but their bicycles at a bicycle shop, just like motorcyclists want to buy their motorcycles at a motorcycle dealer.

It’s always been my humble opinion that it should be bicycle shops that sell e-bikes, not motorcycle shops. We don’t know enough about them, nor do most of us care. And to sell something, you have to know about it and enjoy using it.

I know of one dealer in Texas who got e-bikes because the local bicycle shop owner hated them, for whatever reason. My friend says they are not selling well, but the ones that are selling are the very inexpensive ones — the ones which have most of the problems.

But, the real reason we should be wary of selling e-bikes is because, at the moment, it’s the wild, wild West out there. The largest problem is that most of these e-bikes lack any mandatory testing or certification. There are a few different companies that certify these units, but the main one is Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Many of these e-bikes have no UL certification. Among other things, UL certifies electrical devices and batteries brought into the U.S. (the Canada Standards Association (CSA) does the same thing north of the border).           

We keep hearing of more and more cases where e-bike batteries have spontaneously burst into flames, doing a lot of damage, and in some cases, being responsible for serious injuries and deaths. New York City (NYC) recently enacted a law to make sure that e-bike units sold in the city are certified by UL. They had over 200 fires caused by poorly made lithium batteries in e-bikes, as well as a number of deaths. The UL applicable standards are UL2272 or UL2849. The real problem seems to be that, other than in NYC, it’s not mandatory. In addition, there is nothing to stop an NYC resident from going to New Jersey and buying one of these uncertified e-bikes.

Clearly, we have a product that is not being properly tested and is causing untold harm. There seems to be little official notice.

I was at AIMExpo recently, where many e-bike brands were displaying the latest units they had to offer. Unfortunately for one e-bike manufacturer, a battery started smoking and caught fire. The smoke apparently gives off all kinds of noxious fumes. The convention hall had to be evacuated for about 30 minutes. Fortunately, the battery was moved outside before it could explode and cause any serious problems, so we all survived and went on to have a great AIMExpo.

But why should we care? Let’s say that one of your clients purchases an inexpensive e-bike from your dealership, and in charging it, the battery bursts into flames. It kills two people, burns down a condo tower and does millions of dollars in damages. The unit in question has had no certification or testing done.

When you try to contact the company you bought it from, it is nowhere to be found. The phone number no longer works, and there is no response to emails. Furthermore, the company seems to have disappeared from any listings.

Guess who the lawyers are going to go after? That’s right: the guy with the retail establishment who sold it. You. You are the person they will pursue, with all of their vigor and legal weapons at their disposal. I don’t know about you, but it makes everything I have pucker. 

You might think, “Ok, I have insurance.” Great. Did you know that most insurance companies first try to weasel out of any claims by doing what they can to deny them? I know — you’re surprised by that!

What could the insurance company possibly find fault with? First of all, what certifications does this unit have? Surely it has UL certification or at least some equivalent? If there is one. No? Darn it! Well then, we cannot cover you, sorry.

There you are, with all of your assets out in the wind. Juries are awarding multi-million dollar verdicts against sellers and manufacturers of these units when there is a problem (if they can find them).                          

UL-certified units have a UL sticker on it. It is a gold/brown color and hard to miss. At AIMExpo, I asked many of the manufacturers if they had UL certification. Some of them didn’t even know what that was. Some said yes, they had it, but there was no sticker on a single one of the units at the show. One said they have “the paperwork” they can show me. Fortunately, UL has a database that can be searched at Search Product iQ | UL Solutions (ulprospector.com). You can go there and check whether or not your units comply. There are e-bike manufacturers that do comply.

The other part of the concern is if one of these units catches fire at night while in your showroom. The fires are very intense and hot. You could lose all of your inventory as well as your building, plus any other buildings nearby. I don’t know about you, but that’s my nightmare. Right, insurance! Refer to the paragraph above about insurance companies. Soon you may have a logjam of lawsuits and people after your hide.

My solution is to make sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that the units in your showroom have a UL sticker. Do not take the manufacturers’ word that they have the certification or that they can show you “some paperwork” to assuage your fears. If something goes wrong, guess who’ll be the one facing the storm? You may be all alone. Make sure you are covered. Now, go find out what’s sitting in your showroom, and let me know what you find!

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