The world is experiencing a LEV-olution, with around 40 million electric bikes, scooters, skateboards, unicycles & hoverboards expected to be sold in 2023. But lithium-ion battery fires in these Light Electric Vehicles (LEVs) are causing multiple fatalities, injuries & property losses globally.
In this article, our LEV Specialist, Sara Mills, breaks down this growing sector for emergency responders & outlines how incidents can be managed.
Light Electric Vehicles (LEVs) encompass electric bikes, scooters, skateboards, unicycles & hoverboards, with 40 million being sold globally in 2023
Privately owned LEVs are causing battery fires on a daily basis globally
In the first six months of 2023 there have been over 500 fires leading to 138 injuries & 36 fatalities
Singapore is the only country to reduce their LEV fire incident rate
People can keep themselves safer following a few simple steps
Some emerging solutions to LEV fires include increasing ride-share LEVs & schools education programs
Emergency responders are sharing knowledge on how to manage LEV fires; read that here Emergency response to e-bike, e-scooter battery fires
Welcome to the rise of the LEV
A Light Electric Vehicle (LEV), also referred to as a Personal Mobility Device (PMD), is a light, electrically powered vehicle to travel relatively short distances.
LEVs encompass non-road registered electric vehicles such as e-scooter, e-bikes, e-skateboards, hoverboards, and unicycles. The most popular is the rise of e-scooters and e-bikes, which have paved the way for an effortless, cost-effective transport solution that boasts the benefit of zero emissions.
They're popular for this reason; you can trailblaze your way through crowds, not spend a cent on your commute & all you have to do to help the planet is plug your LEV into a socket in the carpark or office before you zoom off home again. No rego or petrol to pay, no need to find a parking space or think about servicing. It's easy to understand the attraction.
LEVs are a vital part of our decarbonisation journey & these 'e-micromobility' solutions have become the rise of a revolution.
However, there's a dark side to privately owned LEVs that has serious repercussions for emergency responders.
LEVs are everywhere
And with good reason too. Many retailers view the sale of LEVs as good business, and they're right. The sale of LEVs is predicted to surge to $19,185.6 million by 2030, a growth rate of 89.5% from 2021 to 2030, with approximately 40 million being sold in 2023 alone.
Private-use scooters are still the most popular LEV here in Australia & many regions of the world, holding most significant share of the micro-mobility market. Significant growth drivers for the market are obvious; convenience, recreation, economical transport, ease of storage and purchasing options at reasonable prices. Did we mention that they're also a lot of fun to get around on?
Purchasing an e-scooters is easy to do. We could place an order from a Sydney-based retailer for a $789 1000W E-Scooter and drive to the warehouse to pick it up in a few hours. If you’re a parent, place an order for a $139 electric kids' scooter and pick it up same day.
If you’re pressed for time, choose an even cheaper option from Amazon, eBay, Facebook marketplace or Alibaba. Easy, right?
But, is your LEV legal?
Here in Australia the laws around LEVs are confusing & vary between states. Many states only allow private use of LEVs if they meet specific wattage, speed, and road requirements, and these are all different. Basically, the power and speed with which LEVs can move means they’re in a regulatory grey area; is your e-scooter OK to use on a footpath, or given it can do up to 60kph, should it be road-registered?
For this reason, in New South Wales there is a complete ban on e-scooters, both private & shared use. But, Queensland, Western Australia, the ACT & Tasmania allow the personal use of e-scooters. So, if you happen to use your e-scooter to commute from Queanbeyan in NSW to Fyshwick in the ACT, a total of 8kms, you’re good as gold. But come back the other way & you risk a $1000 fine.
Then add to the mix the rule that in NSW you can still buy a fast e-scooter as long as you’re only going to use it on your private property, not public roads.
Now let's add some more rules…your scooter must have lights, riders must wear a helmet, have a bell (except if you're in Tasmania, then no bell), the scooter must be under a certain weight, and you have to be over a certain age to ride one.
None of this is stopping people from riding LEVs at speeds that can – and indeed do – cause serious injury or death. There’s just a general sentiment of ‘just don’t get caught’ from some retail outlets who use the ‘private property use’ as a loophole to still sell unrestricted-speed LEVs, thereby dodging the various state laws.
We don’t blame you. And we have a genuine concern these rules aren’t standardised, are regulated sporadically and very loosely by state departments.
This isn't helpful for the industry as a whole, creating a bit of a ‘who cares’ mentality amongst businesses who've found ways to boycott responsibility and dodge the differing state laws in the name of riding the LEV profitability wave. We don’t blame them either.
But this mentality also spills over into battery fire safety, with serious consequences for life & property safety.
How many light electric vehicle battery fires occurred in 2022
Ask any firefighter from anywhere in the world about LEV battery fires & you’ll hear the concern in their voice.
Make no mistake, LEVs are catching fire, killing people & burning down properties on a daily basis, globally.
Here in Australia we’ve had our first death in March 2022; a 22 year old Queensland man charging an e-scooter in a caravan overnight succumbed to injuries sustained when it caused a vapour cloud explosion, blowing the top of the caravan off. His heavily pregnant partner gave birth in a coma while recovering from her severe burns.
But, this is just the tip of the fire triangle.
While EV FireSafe’s research was originally focused on passenger EVs, from the 1st January 2023 we started tracking all electrified transport battery fires.
With LEVs, because there are so many, we’ve only attempted to capture those that have caused injury or death, property loss or damage. Even with this reduced scope, we simply can't keep up. Neither can fire departments.
The scary stats are these; in 2022 we were able to track approximately 236 LEV battery fire incidents that caused 24 fatalities and 212 injuries requiring hospitalisation.
According to these stats, in 2022 if you were unlucky enough to be involved in a LEV battery fire, you had a 7.8% chance of being killed & a 64% chance of being seriously injured, requiring hospitalisation.
How are light electric vehicle battery fires tracking in 2023?
Not surprisingly, it gets worse in 2023.
In the first quarter of 2023 (1st January to 31 March 2023), we saw 57 LEV battery fires, 18 properties lost or damaged, 97 serious injuries & 9 fatalities.
In April 2023, the first month of quarter 2, there were a further 9 fatalities. Of these, 5 were children.
As of 30th June 2023, there have been 500+ battery fire incidents involving LEVs & we've been able to track 138 injuries requiring hospitalisation & 36 fatalities.
Of those 36 fatalities, 9 were children, 4 were elderly or mobility impaired people & 23 adults have perished in fires caused by light electric vehicles.
And these are just the figures we're able to track.
Where we're able to track the information, the breakdown of both injuries & fatalities is overwhelmingly in apartment buildings, followed by commercial premises.
What's the human cost of light electric vehicle battery fires?
Heartbreakingly, we've lost four whole families to LEV fires in the past 18 months.
We offer a warning on the following images that these discuss fatalities & show images of people before they were killed or seriously injured.
Electric skateboard, 23 June 2022, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Sofia Kabudi (53) and her children Rafi Jabbaz (3), Orly Jabbaz (7), Esther Jabbaz (9), and Camila Jabbaz (17) were killed by carbon monoxide inhalation. Isaac Jabbaz (55), Sofia's husband and the father of all the children, was seriously injured. Source: https://en.mercopress.com
Electric bike, Phillipines, 5th April 2023.
The De Guzman-Villanueva family, Mark (father), Dexie (mother), Mc Kenxie, Kairie, and Keziah. Source: Facebook / Leknaan Ya Pozorrubio, Inc.
Electric bike, Cuba, 28th June 2023.
Unnamed family of 7, including 2 children killed by an electric bike or electric moped. Source: Twitter.
Electric bike, Cambridge, UK, 30 June 2023.
Gemma Germeney, 31, her son Oliver Peden, four, and daughter Lilly Peden, eight. Father Scott is seriously injured. Source: East Anglia News Service/Facebook.
These are just some of the lives destroyed by the poor quality, unregulated & dangerous light electric vehicles flooding the global market.
As our friend & mentor Professor Paul Christensen recently put it in an interview, these numbers make us 'incandescent with rage' at this needless loss of life.
Why are LEV fires so prevalent & deadly?
LEVs are powered by a lithium-ion battery (LiB) pack, consisting of multiple cells that contain an enormous amount of power in a small space.
The LiB pack takes on a charge from a power source, such as a wall socket. This energy transfer is conducted through a charger, which plugs into the battery. All of this is controlled by a battery management system (BMS).
Thermal runaway – or a battery fire – occurs when the LiB cells are ‘abused’ (yes, we know it’s an odd way to explain it, but that’s the official scientific term). Battery cell abuse can occur in a range of ways & we’ve got more of an explainer here.
In short, thermal runaway poses three main hazards;
Off-gassing – up to 6000L of toxic, flammable gases per 1kWh of battery capacity* may be released by a LiB cell in thermal runaway
Ignition – the gases, electrolyte & plastics may ignite, causing fire spread
Vapour cloud explosion – gases that don’t immediately ignite may create a ‘cloud’ that can explode, particularly in an enclosed space such as your living room
*Thanks to Professor Paul Christensen for this information.
This video outlines that risk perfectly, & shows a scary near miss for this father & daughter.
In high quality LEVs brought from reputable suppliers, using well constructed LiB cells & BMS, the risk of thermal runaway is only increased if the LiB pack has been abused; usually from impact, submersion in water or overheating from a nearby fire or heat source.
However, of the estimated 40 million LEVs that will be sold globally in 2023, many are using lower quality LiB cells & BMSs. The reason for this is very firmly the cash grab in the race to decarbonise & get products to market from companies offering cheap, dropshipped LEVs.
And the photos above prove these unregulated products are causing fatalities & injuries.
Whether the LiB cells are already faulty, are more easily abused through daily riding or the BMS is so poor it fails to prevent overcharging of the LiB pack (as in the case of the Phillipines incident), low quality LEVs are not safe for use & should be banned from all markets until safety standards can catch up with minimum requirements for supply.
Why are LEV fires so hard to put out?
As we’ve seen, thermal runaway occurs when a LiB cell suffers abuse and enters an uncontrollable, self-heating state. A single abused cell will overheat & propagate that heat to nearby cells, causing a chain reaction.
The kicker is this. We know that fire needs three things to burn; heat, fuel, and oxygen. If we want to stop a fire, we remove one of those from the fire triangle.
LiB cells present a new challenge & risk for users & firefighters, in that they generate their own oxygen & hydrogen when in thermal runaway, thereby creating a self-sustaining fire.
For firefighters, this stubborn fire is unlike anything we’ve seen before & the only real solution is to attempt to cool that over-heating chain reaction with lots of water (which, thankfully, we already carry a lot of!).
But…if we don’t cool the LiB cells enough, or if not all the cells are burnt out, there is a risk of a second, third or multiple ignitions from the one LEV pack due to stranded energy; we call this secondary ignition.
Our team Technical Specialist, Dan Fish,recently tested this after being 'gifted' a partially burnt e-scooter battery pack, which he submerged in water for 3 months, before removing it & testing the voltage.
Amazingly, one of the partially burnt cells still read a voltage of 3.69 V; a fully charged cell would be at 4.2 V. You can watch that video explainer here.
No, we’re not anti-LEV, just pro-safe LEV
We strongly believe decarbonisation of our transport is of vital importance to combatting climate change.
However, as we all pursue the mission of a low emission, low cost, and sustainable lifestyle, we cannot accept unsafe lithium-ion battery powered LEVs.
The demand for LEVs exploded over the COVID period, outbidding the ability of suppliers to provide cheaper and faster products. With this growth in demand comes a race to the bottom on pricing…and quality.
For anyone considering buying a cheaper LEV, let’s look at the bargain you may be getting.
An investigation conducted by Electrical Safety First in the UK looked at nearly 60 LEV listings from online marketplaces, such as Amazon, eBay, Wish.com, and AliExpress. Unfortunately, they found some scary outcomes:
● All were found to be highly dangerous e-bike chargers
● All 60 failed to meet UK safety standards
● Aftermarket chargers were often labelled as multiple-use, designed to charge the batteries of e-scooters or hoverboards, all of which all have different charging requirements
As in Australia, there are minimal and differing regulations for LEVs worldwide. The loopholes we outlined previously likewise allow for global importation of unsafe products.
It’s also important to note that some LEV manufacturers purchase LiB cells separately to the LEV frame and build the battery pack themselves. This additional handling by parties who haven’t been involved in the construction of the LiB cells themselves, lack of quality oversight, and the likelihood of improper handling and storage (such as in areas exposing LiB cells to elevated temperatures and moisture) all adds additional layers of risk to the process.
While reputable LEV manufacturers purchasing LiB cells from third parties test them as a mandatory requirement, it is largely unknown how heavily regulated quality control is on a country-by-country basis. For LEV manufacturers producing lower quality products, whether cells are tested prior to assembly is unknown.
These LEVs are then shipped to their destination, packed in tight with one another & often at a high state of charge, giving us serious cause for concern for global shipping and air routes, storage facilities - both on dock & in-store - & while on display in a shop front.
The truly scary part is that as the upscaling accelerates, the cost-cutting will continue.
Our work on LEVs is currently unfunded, our team is small and we’re only able to track limited data on the number of LEV battery fires, but one thing is clear from our research; this problem will get a whole lot worse before it gets better.
How can LEV consumers protect themselves from battery fires?
To encourage the LEV-olution, many fire agencies are outlining sensible precautions consumers can take.
We’ve created a list here, but the key takeaway is to only purchase your LEV and accessories from established and reputable manufacturers and suppliers, such as one with a physical shopfront where you can easily return it if you have problems.
Only use chargers supplied with the device or certified third-party charging equipment compatible with the battery specifications
Chargers with incorrect power delivery (voltage and current) can cause damage to the battery, including overheating, which can lead to fires
Check that the charger bears the Regulatory Compliance Mark to show that they meet the relevant Australian Standards under the Electrical Equipment Safety System (EESS)
Do NOT buy second hand LEVs unless you know the history of the unit and can have the battery state of health checked by a reputable and qualified person
Do not keep charging the device or battery after it is fully charged
LEVs should be stored and charged outside a garage, shed or carport away from living spaces. Keep them away from exit doors, escape routes, and combustible materials.
Stop using your LEV if the battery emits an unusual odour, changes colour, gives off too much heat, changes shape, leaks, smokes, or fails to keep a charge
Only have repairs performed by a qualified professional
Never store or leave LEV batteries or devices in areas where they can be exposed to heat or moisture
Do not leave devices in direct sunlight or parked vehicles where they can quickly heat up
Don't use LEV batteries or devices that show signs of swelling or bulging, leaking, overheating, or signs of mechanical damage (cracked, dented, punctured, or crushed)
We also highly recommend you check your local fire agency website for advice on purchase, charging, use and safe disposal.
What are some of the solutions to LEV battery fires?
At the moment, these are emerging, but we must move away from the hand wringing & clickbait headlines some are using to highlight all the problems without any attempt at providing solutions.
This is not a small challenge. Many options require serious government action to implement safety regulations that can take months, if not years, to bring into effect & may be leapfrogged by new tech & suppliers trying to make a quick buck anyway.
The only country we’ve been able to identify who have successfully implemented regulatory controls is Singapore, which introduced UL2272 & EN15194 standards for LEVs, combined with an ‘import control regime’ by their Land Transport Authority to ‘curb the inflow of non-compliant devices’. Additionally, a public awareness campaign focused on the ‘dangers of illegal modification’ of LEVs.
Through this, they’ve dropped the incident rate 33% overall, with personal mobility device fires dropping from 102 in 2019, to only 14 in 2022.
While this may be easier in a smaller, high density population like Singapore, the lesson is clear; regulation works.
In the meantime, there are some sensible actions we can consider, or even take now, that may prove effective at reducing the number of LEV battery pack fire incidents.
Encourage the wider use of fire-aware ride share companies
We're working with Beam, an APAC based ride share company specialising in e-bikes & e-scooters who have built a sensible set of guidelines to protect their people & premises from lithium-ion battery fires.
Given almost all the LEV fatalities we've tracked have been caused by privately owned LEVs, could encouragement of such companies to provide more coverage in major cities & towns for LEVs actually reduce the number of incidents?
As one of our contacts at the National Fire Chiefs Council mentioned, could a 'Netflix style' subscription service actually reduce the number of fires by providing cheaper access to better quality LEVs?
While Beam have taken impressive strides to reduce their battery fire risk, many other companies do not. For this method to work well, the pressure must be put on ride share companies to prove how they’re proritising fire safety to their clients; the local government agencies they hold agreements with for street space on which to park their LEVs.
It's a concept we're exploring with Beam & hope to report back on soon.
Education through schools
Additionally, we're working on a concept for a global schools awareness program that targets one of the highest users of LEVs; our children.
Creating a simple, education-based awareness platform that can be completed as a short science-based project will assist children in early secondary school to better understand the risks involved with LEVs, but also lithium-ion batteries in general.
Our Director, Emma Sutcliffe, was involved in a similar campaign with regards to vehicle idling in schools, called Idle Off, which has been used by a number of schools & compliments similar programs in other countries.
This is an unfunded idea, but has the early support of international battery fire experts, therefore enabling wide uptake when fully developed.
How can emergency responders stay safer around LEVs?
To answer this question we reached out to a global network of firefighters to ask a range of questions about LEV management.
To do those responses justice, we've collated them in a separate post, Emergency response to e-bike, e-scooter battery fires.
As always, We hope this has been helpful & thanks for supporting our website & research. To keep in touch please join our mailing list to keep up to date with the latest news in the lithium-ion battery fire space. You can also join us on Facebook, LinkedIn & YouTube.