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E-Bike Manufacturers: Batteries Too Dangerous For Right To Repair

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A recent piece over at Grist tells us how e-bike manufacturers have gone from manufacturing bikes to manufacturing fear. After a series of high-profile fires caused by battery packs, they’re arguing that e-bike batteries are simply too dangerous for individual owners or independent shops to work on. Instead of being protected by “Right to Repair” laws, they’re saying the batteries should be recycled when they malfunction.

Before we get to what the e-bike manufacturers are asking for, we need to discuss what Right to Repair laws are. Right to Repair laws are consumer protections that would allow owners of electronic devices like smartphones and laptops, vehicles, and other consumer goods to fix or upgrade the things they own without having to go through the manufacturer. These laws are on the books in a few places and under consideration in others. If passed, manufacturers would be required to make repair instructions and spare parts available for purchase.

For EVs, this usually also means that DIYers and independent shops aren’t locked out of the car’s computers. Being able to access things like diagnostic trouble codes helps anyone to more quickly and efficiently effect repairs.

Manufacturers of e-bikes have argued that the batteries are too dangerous for individual owners or independent shops to work on and should be recycled when they malfunction. It is true that lithium-ion batteries can create some spectacular, hard-to-extinguish fires when shorted out or overheated, and some of these fires were caused by bad repair and modification jobs, so they’re not inventing a scary story out of thin air.

That having been said, advocates for Right to Repair aren’t buying it. Similar arguments have been made against Right to Repair for everything from iPhones to EVs, and they’re thinking it’s just another lame attempt to keep a monopoly on the repair industry. One advocate told Grist that he wants people to go to safe repair shops and manage the risks of fire better, but he doesn’t believe that letting manufacturers control the industry is necessary for that to happen.

The Environmental Issues

What makes this particularly important is the environmental issues at play. Consumer protection, both from predatory monopolies and from dangerous fires, is definitely important, but we can’t let the economic tug of war between Right to Repair and manufacturers distract us from both e-waste and the need for more clean transportation.

It’s no accident that the manufacturers mention recycling as an answer instead of Right to Repair. That’s because they want to offer a solution to the problem of discarded batteries. There are several ways that Right to Repair helps with this.

Allowing consumers and independent repair professionals access to repair manuals, tools, and spare parts enables them to fix common issues and extend the lifespan of electronic devices. Instead of discarding a malfunctioning device, it can be repaired and put back into use, reducing the need for constant replacement.

The repairability of electronic devices can significantly reduce the generation of e-waste. When repair becomes more accessible and affordable, people are more likely to choose repair options instead of disposing of their devices. This leads to a decrease in the number of electronics ending up in landfills or recycling facilities. For the recyclers, capacity is currently limited, and reserving their services for things that truly are ready for recycling helps the whole battery industry lower its impact on the Earth.

There’s also the issue of replacing useful batteries with new ones. The manufacturing of electronic devices requires significant amounts of resources, including rare metals and minerals. By repairing and reusing existing devices, the demand for new products decreases, leading to reduced resource extraction and energy consumption associated with manufacturing processes.

The right to repair fosters a shift towards a more sustainable and circular economy. Instead of following a linear model of “take-make-dispose,” repair encourages a circular approach where products are maintained and reused, minimizing waste generation and maximizing resource efficiency.

It’s also true that e-bikes are sorely needed. Not everyone can afford an EV, and not everyone has a place to park and charge one in cities. But almost everyone has a place they can stash a bike, even if it’s only a small folding one, and e-bike batteries can be charged overnight from a standard wall plug at home or at work.

When manufacturers require you to go to them for all repair work, it limits the supply of repair work, and with demand for e-bikes constantly growing, it often leads to higher prices. When prices are higher, fewer people can afford to buy an e-bike and keep it on the road. When e-bikes aren’t available used or refurbished, another option for people on lower incomes isn’t there. So, we’re risking leaving more people to rely on cars, diesel-powered transit in many places, rideshare services, and other options that aren’t as good for the environment.

E-bikes also make more efficient use of the battery supply than EVs and battery-electric transit options (electric buses). Instead of needing a giant battery, e-bikes only need enough battery to move the bike and the rider, plus maybe some cargo, at lower speeds. There are only so many mines supplying battery minerals and only so many manufacturing facilities turning out battery cells. If each person can have their transportation needs served with far fewer battery cells, the limited supply can have a greater positive impact on pollution and climate change.

Other Ways To Address Safety

The need for affordable e-bikes is very real, but it doesn’t negate the need for safe e-bikes. But we need to consider alternatives to total manufacturer control over all repairs. Requiring imported bikes to adhere to minimum safety standards, creating repair certification courses, implementing light-handed regulations for storage and safe-keeping, and many other alternatives are out there. But safety standards shouldn’t be used by governments or manufacturers to engage in naked cash-grabbing, or we’ll lose out on the environmental benefits that we otherwise could have enjoyed.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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