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Narrow or wide? Industry splits on approach to UL standards

Published February 9, 2023

A version of this article ran in the February issue of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. Retailers can get the print or digital version of the magazine free — subscribe at this link.

BOULDER, Colo. (BRAIN) — Two trade organizations and some well-known experts find themselves in opposition as the industry reacts to well-publicized fires, deaths, and injuries involving e-bikes and e-mobility devices and the prospect of increased regulatory oversight of its fastest-growing category.

The conflict involves the groups’ positions on the relevant Underwriters Laboratories standards. Trade group PeopleForBikes is getting behind a narrow standard that applies to just the battery pack, while the National Bicycle Dealers Association supports a newer, broader standard that covers an e-bike’s entire electrical system, including the motor and controller.

Neither standard is mandatory. However, the rash of fires involving e-mobility devices in New York City last year spurred the Consumer Product Safety Commission in December to “urge” the industry to adopt UL standards, with third-party certification of compliance. It’s not clear yet how forcefully CPSC will back up that urging. 

But the announcement and the prospect of mandatory standards prompted both industry groups and others to learn more about the CPSC’s thinking and to make sure the CPSC hears their input.

The CPSC’s Dec. 19 email to 2,000 e-bike suppliers urged compliance with “applicable” standards that it said included UL 2272, published in 2019, and UL 2849, published in 2020. 2272 is a standard for hoverboard battery packs. 2849 covers battery packs, motors, controllers and other parts of the electrical drive system of an e-bike.

On Jan. 4, PeopleForBikes held a video call meeting with CPSC staff in which the industry trade organization urged the CPSC to get behind the UL 2271 — which the CPSC didn’t mention in its letter. 2271 applies only to the battery packs of e-bikes. PeopleForBikes said 2271 is more likely to prevent the kinds of fires that created CPSC’s interest in e-bike regulation. While full investigations of the New York fires are incomplete, news reports and fire department statements suggest many originated with charging refurbished, DIY or aftermarket battery packs, often used with e-scooters, not e-bikes. 

The one-hour video call participants included PeopleForBikes Policy Counsel Matt Moore, Outside Counsel Erika Jones, its e-bike subcommittee chair, Larry Pizzi, and several Trek and Specialized employees and counsel for those companies.

Other industry members listened in on the call but were not able to participate. 

Moore told the CPSC that 2271 (ideally combined with reform of U.S. de minimis regulations, which some industry members are calling for) would get at the root of the fire problem, while requiring the broader 2849 standard would increase bike industry costs while not applying to the aftermarket batteries suspected of causing most fires.

“In looking at the problem with our team and the industry experts that we have, we really look at UL 2271 as a good, base-level standard that could be applied to all battery packs for all light, electric vehicles,” Moore told the CPSC staff. “It’s a standard that can be used across current and future mobility products.” 

“Our proposal and request to the CPSC,” he said later, “is that the CPSC consider accepting testing and certification of e-mobility battery packs to UL 2271 as sufficient to demonstrate compliance in all e-mobility devices, including electric bicycles. We think this standard should be a universal requirement for all types of micromobility batteries.“

Later speakers for PeopleForBikes noted that 2849 is still very new and that labs are not yet set up to test high volumes of products to it. They also noted that compliance with 2849 would not address safety problems from aftermarket and refurbished batteries or batteries on high-powered e-bikes, some of which don’t meet the CPSC’s current definition of an e-bike. They indicated openness to adopting 2849 in the future, but said 2271 offered the best “bang for the buck” in the short term to reduce fire hazards. 

While CPSC staff did not say much in the meeting, one staffer said they felt testing the full system was ideal to make sure mismatched chargers and batteries, for example, don’t create a hazard. 

Dealer group sticks with wider standard

Following the call, the NBDA and its partners made clear they still support the broader 2849 standard. 

“I think it (UL 2271) is a good first step, but ideally we’d like to see 2849. It’s the only way to ensure the whole system has been inspected,” NBDA President Heather Mason told BRAIN. 

The NBDA got behind 2849 last July when it released a statement suggesting dealers ask suppliers to provide certificates of compliance with all applicable standards. The statement quoted a Bosch eBike Systems employee who encouraged all e-bike suppliers to adopt 2849. It also said the NBDA was developing a registry of e-bike models that meet 2849 (more on the registry below).  

Mike Fritz, an industry consultant who conducts e-bike safety webinars and presentations for the NBDA and others, was among those who listened to the Jan. 4 call. 

“We’re of the opinion that full UL certification is appropriate and called for,” Fritz told BRAIN. “In contrast to PeopleForBikes who grudgingly acquiesced to pushing for 2271.”

Fritz said dealers need to be able to allay fears and address questions from consumers about e-bike battery safety. Pointing to e-bikes that are fully certified to UL would give dealers credibility, he said, adding that even the best certified batteries can fail if not properly handled.  

Fritz and Jay Townley, who are among the partners in the consulting firm Human Powered Solutions, were members of PeopleForBikes’ e-bike subcommittee until December, when Pizzi sent letters to each letting them know their seats were being offered to other industry members. 

The dismissal came before the CPSC’s Dec. 19 letter and the subsequent PeopleForBikes call. But Fritz noted it came after Townley was quoted in a Consumer Reports article saying he was embarrassed that the industry has not responded more aggressively to battery safety. (Townley made similar comments to BRAIN in an article published last month.)

Cost a factor

On the CPSC call, Moore explained that 2849 would raise supplier costs and reduce flexibility. Moore joined PeopleForBikes last year; he previously was a longtime employee at QBP, where he was involved with bike and e-bike development.

UL 2271 “gets less expensive because you can cover multiple products within a brand. If you test one battery pack, you can use that across multiple bicycles rather than a bicycle-by-bicycle approach,” Moore said. 

He later added, “Many manufacturers of electric bicycles choose to customize the drive system of all their products to provide market differentiation and solve sourcing issues.” He explained that making designers use a complete drive system because it is certified as a system would require brands to design frames around only that system, reducing opportunities to differentiate their bikes. 

Adam Micklin, the sales director for e-bike controller supplier Accelerated Systems, said requiring 2849 would be “very expensive” for brands that choose to piece together systems from multiple vendors. Since it doesn’t make battery packs or motors, Accelerated Systems’ customers are exactly those kinds of brands.

“If one single part of the system is changed (due to availability, price issues or end of life issues with a single part) the bike brand will have to retest at additional cost the ‘new’ system with the changed part to get UL certified,” he said. 

He said mandating 2849 would push more brands to spec’ systems from a handful of major brands including Shimano, Bosch and Bafang. 

“These brands make excellent and reliable products, but they have very limited  —  if none  — customized options for each brand to create a ride that is truly their own design and feeling. Bike brands will be forced to use the ride characteristics (parameters) of what the large corporations offer with no customization options,” Micklin said.

Micklin, who has long been active in PeopleForBikes committees, said Accelerated Systems is fully behind a safe e-mobility market. “The critical safety issue the e-mobility industry is facing today is absolutely linked to batteries and battery chargers and having the industry and our government organizations such as the CPSC regulating these is the right approach,” he said. 

Fritz said the industry can afford the extra cost of 2849. “Our position is that in light of the profitability of the e-bike industry the past several years, it’s not too much to ask. It’s not much money in light of the size of the business and the issues at hand.”

Townley said the cost of certification to the UL is minimal for manufacturers who make bikes that meet the standard. The total cost of certification per system is about $25,000, he said. Amortized across 2,000 production units of a model, that would equal $12.50 per bike. That doesn’t include the cost of modifying a bike model’s electrical system to meet the standard, however, which might not be an issue for most IBD suppliers but would raise the bar for importers of low-priced bikes.

Ibrahim Jilani of UL Solutions, an independent certification company, confirmed Townley’s figures. 

NBDA’s self-selecting registry

Last July, the NBDA promised to create a registry of UL-compliant bike models, but by December the list was minimal because manufacturers use a variety of third-party certification laboratories and many did not reply to inquiries from dealers. However, in January Mason told BRAIN that NBDA would launch a database where suppliers will be able to self select and add themselves. 

“It was too much for my team to call every brand,” she said. The self-selecting format went live in early February and is accessible by NBDA dealer members. It also records suppliers’ liability insurance certifications. 

Topics associated with this article: Electric bike

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