Future Tense

Electric Scooters Are “Smoldering,” and Not in a Good Way

They join a long line of consumer products with problems related to battery fires.

Two people ride Lime shared dockless electric scooters along Venice Beach on August 13, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
People ride Lime scooters along Venice Beach on Aug. 13 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

In recent months, the market for electric scooters has caught fire—and so, apparently, have some electric scooter batteries.

On Tuesday, electric scooter company Lime announced that a manufacturing defect, in “several isolated instances,” could cause batteries on its vehicles to smolder, or even, in some cases, catch flames. The announcement came after questions from the Washington Post on the fire risk surrounding some scooters—a risk that the company, according to its statement, first identified in August.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Lime officials said they recalled about 2,000 scooters and that only a very small portion of those recalled scooters presented any real threat of fire or smoldering. According to the Washington Post, the only known case of a scooter fire occurred at a Lime facility in Lake Tahoe in late August. In its statement, the company said its removal of scooters affected riders and chargers in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Lake Tahoe, California, but that “at no time were riders or members of the public put at risk.”

According to the company, the defect arose in one of the two types of batteries used in early scooter models. The scooters with defective batteries were manufactured by Segway Ninebot. Lime said it also recently received an unconfirmed report about the risk of “battery failure” in a different Ninebot scooter model—and as a result, all Segway Ninebot scooters will now be charged in the company’s storage facilities (rather than in people’s homes) until it “is satisfied that there are no remaining issues.” The “vast majority” of scooters on the streets are later models, the company said, which come from manufacturers other than Segway Ninebot.

Bird, another leading scooter company, also uses a variety of manufacturers for its vehicles, and that list includes Segway Ninebot. In a statement to Slate on Wednesday, Bird said it had reached out to the manufacturing company to confirm that its own scooters were free from the defects reported in Lime’s early model vehicles. “We have conducted our own initial investigation of the reported claims and believe that none of the vehicles Bird purchased from Segway Ninebot are affected,” a spokesperson wrote.

The Washington Post’s report includes interviews with Lime employees who raised concerns over scooter safety. In an internal Slack message in a chatroom for mechanics, one employee apparently wrote, “I get that the scoots are expendable and replaceable, but are we now resigned to say the same for the safety of employees and customers?”

These most recent concerns over battery safety in electric scooters fall into line with a long, would-be-entertaining-if-it-wasn’t-so-scary history of batteries with literal explosive potential.

Unforgettably, there was the 2016 Samsung Galaxy Note 7 dilemma, which included a Florida man’s Jeep catching fire post phone-explosion, a Southwest Airlines flight evacuation after a “popping and smoking” phone incident, and Samsung’s eventual decision to stop production of the phone in what Reuters called “one of the costliest product safety failures in tech history.”

In 2015, hoverboards also made headlines for catching fire. Two years later, a hoverboard fire reportedly lead to the death of a 3-year-old girl. In 2016, CNET defined hoverboards as a “form of transportation that lets trendy kids get into trouble while effortlessly zipping along the sidewalk”—a description that, a couple years later, seems like it could be just as accurately applied to scooters.

The list of examples of battery fires goes on: electric cars (think Tesla), notebook computers (hello, Dell), baby monitors (yes, baby monitors!). Most of the danger lies in lithium ion batteries, ubiquitous in consumer devices thanks to their long run time and seamless rechargeability. In the vast, vast majority of cases, we don’t notice these batteries, and they serve us nobly. As Matthew Eisler wrote for Slate in 2016, “the technology is largely out of sight and out of mind, and it does not get the credit it deserves as an enabler of the mobile computing revolution.”

But when things go wrong, they can go really wrong. That is, when “the lithium genie gets out of the bottle,” Eisler writes, there are “potentially catastrophic consequences.”

The principal federal agency in charge of reducing that potential and dealing with those consequences is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But, unfortunately, the CPSC is a largely reactive agency. As NPR explained in 2016, the CPSC “does not approve products before they go to market, like the FDA. Its strongest power is the law that requires all companies to report known hazards in their products to the CPSC immediately.”

In the interim, we put our trust in the companies that connect us, power us, and scoot us. The good news with the Lime battery problems is that the company says they impacted less than 0.01 percent of its scooter fleet, and no one was hurt. And the revelations, it seems, might serve as a lesson on critically examining safety features in scooters and other battery-powered consumer products—an opportunity, if you will, to make limeade out of Lime.