Lime, a scooter and bicycle sharing company, is in hot water after two recent recalls of its brand of electric scooters. In October of this year, Lime recalled 2,000 electric scooters after reports indicated that the batteries of certain models were spontaneously catching on fire. Within a month, Lime issued a second recall after a number of its scooters reportedly broke in half. In light of the rapid proliferation, and allegedly questionable safety, of Lime scooters since the company’s inception in 2017, the new year may bring a slew of lawsuits for the startup.
But what is Lime exactly? Lime is a transportation sharing company that rents electric scooters and bicycles by the minute and hour. A downloadable app locates available vehicles on a map screen and then the user can unlock the chosen vehicle by scanning a code. The bicycles and scooters can be parked anywhere after use. Worth an estimated $2 billion, Lime operates in cities across the United States as well as other countries. A number of its fleet of electric bicycles and scooters can be found on college campuses as well.
The Recalls and Potential Safety Risks
In August, Lime became aware of an issue plaguing some of its earlier scooter versions, specifically, its Segway Ninebot scooters. Lime took to its blog to report the manufacturing defect, which caused batteries to smolder, and in some instances, catch fire. As it stated:
We took this issue very seriously. Immediately upon learning of the defect, we worked with Segway Ninebot to create a software program to detect the potentially affected batteries. We then worked independently to create an even more thorough software program to ensure that no potentially faulty scooters remained in circulation. When an affected battery was identified — with a red code — we promptly deactivated the scooter so that no members of the public could ride or charge it.
The company recalled about 2,000 scooters, though it states the risk of smoldering and fire was only found in a “tiny percentage of cases.” However, the company also noted that it received an unconfirmed report that another scooter model may be prone to battery failure. In August, one scooter at the company’s Lake Tahoe facility burst into flames, according to a fire department report. The battery periodically re-erupted. Lime stated that the welding surrounding the battery might have weak spots which are causing the batteries to short.
These risks are not just posed to users, but also to the individuals paid to recharge the electric scooters in their homes. Known as “juicers,” these individuals are paid $15 by Lime to recharge the scooters overnight. A Lime employee recalled one particular instance when Lime attempted to retrieve a “code red” scooter – a scooter with a battery defect – from a juicer’s home. The juicer refused to turn over the scooter to the employee, and the employee was then instructed by a manager to warn the juicer that it was an urgent matter, though there was no mention of the fire risk. In light of the risk, Lime has stated that the Segway Ninebot scooters will now be charged only at the company’s storage facilities, not in people’s homes. The facilities will also be staffed with employees trained to handle “these particular batteries.”
Within weeks after the fire hazard recall, Lime issued a recall of another one of its brands of scooters manufactured by a Chinese company, Okai. Lime recalled an unspecified number of these scooters after reports that they were breaking apart from “repeated abuse.” The company notified its users that the baseboards of the scooter could “crack or break if ridden off a curb at a high speed.” Lime stated that these particular scooter models would be decommissioned and recalled from every city in which they are deployed.
Some Lime employees have expressed concerns regarding the general safety of Lime scooters. “I feel that these scoots, or the product as a whole, should be removed from the market until they are safe to handle and operate,” one employee wrote in an internal message. “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?”
According to critics, emergency room physicians have seen a spike in injuries, such as head trauma and broken bones, related to scooter riding. Some critics have raised concerns that companies fail to properly maintain their scooters, and that these electric vehicles were not made for widespread public use.
In response to these safety concerns, Lime launched its $3 million “Respect the Ride” program, to improve its maintenance and educate its users on safe riding practices. The company has also stated it would distribute 250,000 free helmets in the next six months and will be partnering with city officials in efforts to improve the safety of its scooters.
How Can the Experts Weigh In?
Despite Lime’s efforts, it is likely that these manufacturing defects may result in a potential lawsuit. Like any products liability case, the prospective plaintiffs would need to prove that Lime’s scooter defects and/or its failure to warn of such defects were a proximate cause of their injuries. Some experts in the field have already begun to opine on the legitimacy of these claims. Tim Ellis, a metallurgical engineer from RSR Technologies, a company that specializes in recycling batteries, said that the damage typically caused to the scooters in its everyday use could make a lithium ion battery more prone to catching on fire. “Anything you do that mechanically juggles, vibrates, bangs or runs into things will absolutely enhance the possibility of failure,” Ellis surmised. “The box the battery is in looks really heavy. That suggests it can handle a huge amount of damage, but at some level everything breaks.”
Human factors experts may also play a role in any future litigation, in order to analyze how users are interacting with the scooters and accounting for the issues of risk and human error. Particularly in light of the allegedly rampant “scooter vandalism,” and a paltry lifespan of one to two months for each scooter, it is even more of a reason to investigate the general safety and stability of these vehicles before they become more widespread throughout the country.