You’d be forgiven for thinking that bicycles are ideal products when it comes to repairability. Unfortunately, it seems, bikes too are a victim of the common trope: they don’t make ‘em like they used to, write Jean-Pierre Schweitzer and Chloé Mikolajczak.
At least this is what a US based campaign claimed last week, as bike mechanics called on manufacturers to stop producing “built to fail budget bicycles”. According to the campaign, some bikes last as little as 90 hours of riding, with essential components such as frames and bearings literally falling apart.
Aside from impossible to repair budget bicycles, the rapidly growing market for e-bikes is also presenting its own repairability dilemma: is it better to replace or repair e-bike batteries? And what can cyclists do when replacement batteries are not available?
E-bikes battery packs make up the most valuable component of electric bikes. Batteries can cost between 300 to over 1000 EUR and may make up to 50% of the overall cost. Yet batteries are ultimately consumables, and based on their usage they will need to be changed between every 2 to 7 years once power begins to fade.
The battery packs on e-bikes are composed of the battery cells, the casing and the battery management system. While battery cells have a standard format (18650 being the most popular), the battery packs and management systems are tailored to manufacturers and sometimes to specific bike models – which can create barriers to repair and replacement.
Just as in consumer electronics like smartphones, non-replaceable or non-repairable batteries in bikes and scooters can result in shorter product lifetimes, increased electronic waste, loss of rare materials, and unnecessary expenditure for consumers, as shown by a recent report by the EEB, the Right to Repair campaign and the Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University.
A growing number of small businesses across Europe are offering battery repair and refurbishment services. One example is Daurema in Brussels: their services include replacing used cells with new ones, or replacing small components which have failed due to water damage, for example. The cost of repairing a battery is usually a fraction of the cost of replacing the entire pack.
Meanwhile, European legislators are currently debating the future EU batteries regulation. Although most of the attention is on electric car batteries, e-bikes are also on the agenda. One of the points of discussion is whether the batteries of so-called “light means of transport”, including e-bikes and scooters, should be covered by minimum repair and replaceability requirements.
This could make battery repair and refurbishment easier, for example by introducing requirements for battery packs so they are easier to service, making spare parts available, or preventing the use of software which can stop repaired batteries functioning.
However, the bike manufacturer’s industry association, CONEBI, has recently published a position paper in which they claim that repairing batteries is not safe, even for independent professionals, arguing that because of a lack of a certification process, the safety of repaired batteries could not be guaranteed. They also maintain that there is a limited environmental benefit from repairing batteries. Overall, they encourage people to buy new original batteries instead.
Battery repair companies themselves argued that in many cases battery packs are no longer made available by the manufacturer, so without the option of repair services some cyclists may face no alternative than replacing their entire bicycle. Similarly, battery failure can be linked to switch failure for which the entire battery need not be replaced. In these scenarios, battery repair can save both resources, waste, and consumer expenditure.
Some repairers also reported that they were ready for certification and that they accepted liability if a battery they repaired faced issues.
It is time for the industry to change and embrace the Right to Repair. As more e-bikes are sold yearly and the ecological crisis intensifies, this is becoming a pressing issue for consumers and the planet. Between 2019-2020, 3 million e-bikes were sold in Europe, representing around 20% of all bikes sold across the continent.
On the policy side, this is a great opportunity for decision makers to showcase ambition. The environmental committee of the European Parliament will vote on amendments to the battery regulation on the 11th February. Meanwhile, at a recent European Council meeting hosted by the Slovenian Presidency, governments gave broad support to include light means of transport in the regulation.