Why New York City is testing battery swapping for e-bikes

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Why New York City is testing battery swapping for e-bikes

It’s part of the city’s efforts to cut down on the risk of battery fires, some of which have been sparked by e-bike batteries charging inside apartment buildings, according to the fire department. For more on the program and how it might help address fires, check out my latest story. In the meantime, here’s what I heard from delivery drivers and the startups at the kickoff event.

On a windy late-February day, I wove my way through the lines of delivery workers who showed up to the event in Manhattan’s Cooper Square. Some of them straddled their bikes in line, while others propped up their bikes in clusters. Colorful bags sporting the logos of various delivery services sprouted from their cargo racks.

City officials worked at tables under tents, assigning riders to one of the three startups that are partnering with the city for the new program. One company, Swiftmile, is building fast-charging bike racks for drivers. The other two, Popwheels and Swobbee, are aiming to bring battery swapping to the city.

Battery swapping is a growing technology in some parts of the world, but it’s not common in the US, so I was especially intrigued by the two companies who had set up battery swap cabinets.

Swobbee runs a small network of swapping stations around the world, including at its base in Germany. It is retrofitting bikes to accommodate its battery, which attaches to the rear of the bike. Popwheels is taking a slightly different approach, providing batteries that are already compatible with the majority of e-bikes delivery drivers use today, with little modification required.

I watched a Popwheels employee demonstrate the company’s battery swapping station to several newly enrolled drivers. Each one would approach the Popwheels cabinet, which is roughly the size and shape of a bookcase and has 16 numbered metal doors on the front. After they made a few taps on their smartphone, a door would swing open. Inside, there was space to slide in a used battery and a cord to plug into it. Once the battery was in the cabinet and the door had been shut, another door would open, revealing a fully charged e-bike battery the rider could unplug and slide out. Presto!