Defining 'e-bike' (including 'e-trikes') is easy as 'e' stands for 'electric' and 'bike' implies bicycle technology as distinct from motorcycle or scooter/moped technology. But beyond semantics, many struggle with the 'what is' question. One starting point is to define e-bikes as electric (as distinct from ICE or internal combustion engine) assisted cycles with the emphasis on ASSISTED as in pedal-assisted human-power. That many humans cannot produce enough power to adequately power a bicycle is a fact (see Limits of Human Power). The idea of an assist engine is to assist the unfit or handicapped to cycle by augmenting such human-power as they have. The idea is not to allow the unfit or even the very fit, whether they choose to pedal or not, to equal or vastly exceed the human-power of top athletes.
Or 50 mph e-motorcycle with token pedals?
The problem is that it is possible (and therefore has been none) to use bicycle technology to make an “e-bike” that goes over 50 mph (80 km/h). The average fit human pedals about 9 mph (15 km/h) average on the flats, which is vastly faster than many unfit humans can sustain (close to zero—99% of American adults never pedal) and far slower than athletes can maintain (25 mph or 40 km/h, the average Tour de France speed). If e-bikes are assisted vehicles that are functionally equivalent to bicycles and are legal equivalents, then 10 mph under electric power alone would suffice to allow the less than fit to cycle. A reasonable definition of e-bike might be "an electric motor assisted cycle that functions like a human-only powered cycle."
The problem would be with 'like'. The fastest human-powered vehicle goes 83 mph (133 km/h) and so that should be the e-bike speed limit, right? No, the qualifier was 'reasonable' and going 80 km/h on an average bicycle is of questionable sanity off the race course (or on), much less wanting to go 113 km/h. Also the qualifier 'average' comes into play. By 'average', is that average maximum speed achieved by the average Tour de France cyclist? Back to 'reasonable' again and Tour de France cyclists are not average. The problem, then, is that by 'average' do you mean average fit human, average very fit human, or average athlete? The average unfit humans cannot effectively cycle very far, so how about going with "average human-powered cyclist who can put out enough power to effectively get about?"
The problem is that the average fit cyclist who goes around at 9 to 10 mph (15 km/h) can do so for long periods only on the flats with no significant headwind. Otherwise they will need assist. It is not a coincidence that areas with active cycling communities tend to be flat. The average fit cyclist, as distinct from average human, can output about 75 watts of sustained power, and that is not enough to make it up moderate slopes nor power into significant headwinds for sustained periods of time. To make bicycle technology work under practical conditions requires about 150 watts. More would be useful for climbing hills, but would not be essential to avoid having to get off and push (most of the time).
A reasonable argument can be made that 200 watts is enough for an assist motor intended for a bicycle transporting a human with a little load, so one way to define an e-bike is by maximum wattage. Some think that bicycles, to be assisted, must be pedal-assisted only (pedelecs), so an e-bike must be a pedal-assisted cycle that requires a rider to pedal. Assisted bikes also weigh more, so is an e-bike that weighs several times more than a bicycle a hazard to others and therefore not a bicycle? Another way to define e-bikes is by speed. Only the very fit can pedal faster than 15 mph (20 km/h) for very long so often maximum speed is used to define an e-bike. Different authorities come up with differing ways to define 'e-bike'.
Maximum Speed in km/h (mph)
Gross Vehicle weight in kg (lbs)
|Canada||500 W||32 (20)|
|Alberta||750 W||35 (22)|
|Saskatchewan||Yes||750 W||32 (20)|
|China||20 (12)||20 (44)|
|European Union||Yes||250 W||25 (15.5)|
|India||250 W||25 (15.5)|
|Israel||250 W||25 (15.5)||30 (66)|
|New Zealand||300 W|
|UK - bicycle||200 W||25 (15)||40 (88)|
|UK - trike||250 W||25 (15)||60 (132)|
|USA||750 W||32 (20)||45 (100)|
|California||1000 W||32 (20)|
|Connecticut||1500 W||64 (40)|
|District of Columbia||1100 W||56 (35)|
|Georgia||1000 W||32 (20)|
|Kentucky||1500 W||48 (30)|
|Maine||1100 W||40 (25)|
|Maryland||1100 W||48 (30)|
|Minnesota||1000 W||32 (20)|
|Montana||1500 W||48 (30)|
|Oregon||1000 W||32 (20)|
Most e-bikes are made and used in China where about 9% (in 2010) of the population has one. Many more Chinese ride bicycles and many cities have found that e-bikes fail to fit in, are associated with too many deaths, and have banned them (and, for the same reason, motorcycles) from high bicycle use urban areas. Still, the over 120 million e-bikers in China (2010, closer to 200 million as of 2014) want the legal speed limit increased. The lesson is—fit in with human-powered cycles or be banned. E-bikes that are too fast to be bicycles and too slow to merge with car traffic will be left to fend for themselves or will be banned. Don't expect a huge infrastructure to be created to separate e-bikes from both bicycle and auto traffic. To keep up with cars, e-bikes turn into e-motorcycles, so e-bikes need to be bikes and moderate their speed to match. When the critical mass of too many too fast e-bikes in an area is reached, expect efforts to have them banned. A workable alternative is built-in controller limited speed.
Even in the need-for-speed USA, many bicycle paths either ban e-bikes or have posted a 15 mph (20 km/h) e-bike speed limit in an attempt get e-bikes to coexist with pedal only cycles. Even 15 mph exceeds average cycling speeds, so 10 mph when other cyclists (or joggers, pedestrians, pets) are around is a reasonable self-imposed (but decidedly un-American) speed limit.
Human-power defines low-power, and human-power ranges from 0 to 450 watts. Throw out the too-low-to-be-useful and the phenomenally rare high-power humans, and practical low-power is equivalent to very fit human-power levels of 150 watts to 250 watts and human speeds of 15 to 25 km/h (10 to 15 mph). China, with the most e-bike experience, has a 20 km/h (12 mph) legal speed limit, yet in high density areas has felt forced to ban them (perhaps e-bikes tend to actually go faster than 20 km/h as Chinese e-bikers want the speed limit raised to 30 km/h). The lessons of recent history suggest that if an e-bike can go faster than fast, then most of its human operators will go too fast. This makes the EU requirements for pedelec 250 watt or less e-bikes where the motor stops working at speeds over 25 km/h (15.5 mph) or when the rider stops pedaling look decidedly reasonable. E-bikes should, of course, be allowed to be operated without even token pedaling provided the rider displays a Handicap Permit.
Allowing e-bikes to go 25 km/h is an experiment. As long as there are few e-bikes in an area, it might work, but if there are many e-bikes going 25 km/h, they will be whizzing past most mere human-power cyclists who are less than very fit. To really fit in, a 15 km/h speed limit would be reasonable at times in crowded areas and may be needed to avoid getting e-bikes banned or over regulated.
If an e-bike's controller shuts down the motor as the speed limit is reached, there is no need to specify a 250 W limit to power. A heavy bike going up a steep hill needs more power—otherwise the rider gets off and pushes as they would if the bike had no pedal-assist motor at all. A heavy bike pulling a trailer may need 750 W, 1000 W, or even 1500 watts depending on load and slope. Legislating wattage that law enforcement cannot easily measure is not sensible. The sensible and enforceable (a controller with speed limit built in) limitation needs to be speed based to define what an e-bike, qua bike, is. Arizona, Illinois, and Texas limit e-bikes only in terms of speed. A speed limit of 15 km/h is reasonable at times and 32 km/h (20 mph) is reasonable in the wide open spaces.
The only behavior of a vehicle that is easy to measure is its speed, so if 1500 watts is being used by a cargo carrying e-bike to climb a steep hill at a moderate speed, so what? If the vehicle has enough power to climb steep hills at a reasonable speed, the problem is that without a built-in speed limit cut-off most humans will go for the very high speeds a 1500 watt system would allow even if it kills them (or others). The only workaround is to have the electric motor stop working when a predetermined speed limit is reached. Otherwise limiting motor power to 200 - 250 watts is the only way to limit speed, but that limits cargo carrying and hill climbing ability. To coexist, speed must be moderated. Conceptually, low-power vehicles are those reasonably based on bicycle technology whether they are human-only powered or have an assist motor.
To allow e-bikes to haul the weight of the motor and battery, and perhaps heavy cargo as well (36% of Americans are obese), they need more power than is humanly possible to produce even if human speeds are maintained. A possible technology solution is to allow the e-rider to select three levels of speed. When among average cyclists and pedestrians on multi-use paths, use level 1, the red light level where assisted speed is limited to 15 km/h (10 mph). On bicycle lanes in urban areas, use level 2, the yellow level, where the posted speed limit might be 25 km/h (15.5 mph). On long stretches of open road, the speed limit would be level 3, or the green light level, perhaps 32 km/h (20 mph). In green light mode, pedelec could be optional as fatigue can eventually becomes a handicap. A light visible to all would tell all what speed limit setting the e-biker was using. If going faster than the posted legally defined limit for low-powered vehicles, such as using the green light setting in a red light zone, then enforcement issues would be eased and those at risk would be warned of the rouge among them.
A fourth level, the flashing red or fast walking speed level, which would be 3 to 4 mph (5 - 6 km/h), would be a safe and sane sidewalk speed if there are few or no pedestrians on it. In flashing red light mode the motor's assist could just be disabled for the non-handicapped and regen could be enabled to moderate speed should the need to pedal hard arise. Bicycles are commonly banned from using sidewalks even though not using them is suicidal in places. Cyclists are suppose to get off and walk their bike on sidewalks and crosswalks, which is challenging for recumbents with underseat steering. A case could be made that cycles, if operated at walking speed, should not be banned from using sidewalks. This would work if cyclists, human-powered or e-powered, actually moderated their speed. The bottom line is moderate speed or expect to be banned.
Regulations that are enforceable may be preferable to being banned. In China, when e-bike mayhem can't be moderated, the solution has been to ban them. If e-bike advocates want e-biking to be commonplace, e-bike performance, by design, needs to be moderated to average human performance at least in terms of speed. Faster may be a selling point but it is not better.
In February, 2014, the Toronto city council decided to allow e-bikes to use bike lanes (they remain illegal on bike paths) instead of being forced to mix with traffic, thereby going against the advice of the public works committee and cycling community (88% disagreed that bike lanes should be shared with e-bikes). Good news for e-bikes? Read the article and note the misinformation that starts with a photo showing two sandal-clad riders on a motor scooter (it is decidedly not an e-bike) and especially note the many ill-informed and malicious comments that include calls to ban the hated monstrosities.
The comments are quite lengthy, so some excerpts: "many people refer to e-bikes as 'DUI-mobiles'...all e-bikes I've encountered have been a hindrance to traffic in car lanes and bike lanes...motorized vehicles in a lane dedicated to bicycles is a bad idea...The fact is that bike lanes were created for pedal powered vehicles, (Not just vehicles that may have pedals, but those that are actually used)...Once you add a heavier, faster, motorized vehicle to those lanes, the whole purpose has been defeated. E-bikes can much more easily share the lanes with cars (if driven properly) than bikes can (even if ridden properly) and that's where they should remain--in lanes for motorized vehicles....These things should be banned! Majority of the ebike riders I see are pathetic losers in life who have no idea about road rules and safety....There's no limit to their stupidity and they don't seem to care about anybody else....can't we all just agree that everyone f---ing hates ebikes and they suck no matter where they're allowed to drive?...This decision by council will only lead to altercations in the bike lanes. Cyclists are already on the defensive for many reasons, here is just another one to add to the list....we should be stacking and burning all e-bikes....people who ride e-bikes are careless a-holes who don't give a frig about being civic-minded, or whether they know they shouldn't be allowed where bikes should go...I say the solution that *could* work for everyone is put a limiter on e-bikes that makes their top speed the same as the SLOWEST cyclist. Based on the last surveys I looked at, that was 14km/h...the whole point of their being able to do 32 km/h max: to keep up with motor vehicles in stop/go traffic conditions, not to create a hazard in the bike lanes....they are too quiet, move too fast, and the riders often over-confident in their ability to use instant torque/speed to 'zip' their way out of any bottleneck before they're ensnared....when e-bikes try to zip around impending issues, they often 1) spook cyclists by flying by unheard and, 2), then clumsily dart around them/parked cars/moving cars, thus spooking everyone behind them and actually CAUSING an issue....e-bikes have their place--on road, middle of the lane, just like every other motorized traffic....Its dangerous to have someone who doesn't know how to drive come from out of nowhere on a 30km/h motorized vehicle that makes no noise when you're trying to walk....Ebikes are bad news for everybody. They should ban them completely!...get off yr ebike and ride a REAL BIKE! STAY THE HELL OUTTA OUR LANES! you are a motorized vehicle, deal the the cars, you lazy wimps....E-Bikes are the worst. They are for lazy pieces of shit that just don't want to peddle....These losers should be paying for insurance. It's not fair to the people or property that they injure or destroy to pay. They are a hazard for cars, pedestrians and now especially for cyclist....The rich car people and the self-righteous d-bag cyclists can't stand to share the road with the less fortunate....Why can't we just share the road people??"
Those considering getting an e-bike risk not fitting in with the current 'bicycle purist sub-culture' that is very much out there, and so will have to deal with it and with the attitudes thereof. Those fit enough to join the elect, they who aspire to the power and the glory, don't need no damn e-bike—and those who get one will never pedal enough, lazy wastrels that they are, to become one of them, so e-bikes are bad, all bad. The human-only powered spinners that dominate the bicycle purist click are often hostile to e-bikes and the 'lazy ones' who would consider them. They may make an exception if you have a doctor's excuse, but otherwise view e-bikes as a scourge and those who would ride them as at best misguided. To cycling purists it is an obvious fact that e-bikes are a menace to all (since they allow the unknowing/undeserving unfit to go too fast too easily) and e-bikes are terrible for your health (unlike the cars the purists drive) as e-bikes tempt you to not pedal and so "suck the soul out of your commute."
Any city with an active bicycling community either already has banned e-bikes from multi-use paths (e.g. Tucson, AZ) or wants to ban them. The next battleground will be the bike lanes. New York City has banned e-bikes entirely. It is unlikely that cities will provide a pedestrian infrastructure (sidewalks) and a cycle infrastructure (lanes) AND an e-bike infrastructure. If e-bikes have to keep up with high-power traffic, they will have to evolve into light motorcycles. To share the bicycle infrastructure, they will have to act like most bicycles, and not like road bikes ridden by Spandex clad athletes. The 14 km/h (8.7 mph) speed mentioned by one commentator is not the speed of the slowest cyclist, but the seemingly low average speed of non-athletic average cyclists observed in the wild. The slowest cyclists admirably go about 8 km/h (5 mph) on the flats which requires an effort equivalent to leisurely walking (about 25W) which is the best they can do and which is vastly better than the activity intolerant aspire to. To avoid being banned from multi-use paths, e-bikes limited to 15 km/h (9.3 mph) on multi-use paths would be less likely to generate enough scathing animosity from the 150W+ minority of humans who dominate the cycling sub-culture to get themselves banned.
If e-bikes are banned or a ban is proposed in your area, suggest an alternative of imposing a 10 mph (15 km/h) speed limit on them if used on multi-use paths or downtown. The issue is always speed—e-bikers going too fast (especially without even token pedaling) where only the very fit or athletic (who tend to be experienced and responsible cyclists) can go too fast (few human-power cycles can go too fast, almost all e-bikes can and most e-bikers will if they can). One way or another, e-bike technology will have to be moderated or be banned.
Vehicles that can exceed very fit human-power output to allow higher speeds are not assisted bicycle technology vehicles even if they look bicyclish. Vehicles that can go over the speed limit for low-power vehicles, whatever that may be, fall into a different class of vehicle. Mid-power vehicles should be based on light motorcycle or moped/scooter technology. Ultra-light mid-powered vehicles with full suspension could make use of bicycle technology, but bicycle wheels are not really made to go fast on all too often not well maintained public roads.
Most motorcycles are high-power vehicles with two wheels. Mid-power vehicles, whether two or more wheeled, would be out of place on bicycle paths or lanes, and so would have to mix with high-power vehicles in situations where high-power isn't needed (which is most of the time). City driving does not require high-power. All cars are high-power. Mid-power vehicles with a maximum speed of 44 mph (72 km/h), would be able to keep up with traffic most of the time in most places.
Mid-power vehicles would also be operable on most highways (legally) as only some sections of interstate highways have a posted 40 mph lower speed limit which a mid-power vehicle could not maintain going uphill. With slow-moving vehicle signs and lights, mid-power vehicles should be able to operate on public roads with reasonable safety even if they annoy at times the high-power vehicle drivers. That issue will go away when all high-power vehicles are operated by Google Drive (to mitigate the current level of carnage).