Some electric "bicycles" make you scratch your head and say "that's a motorcycle"

reikiman's picture

I recently had the privilege to test and review a pair of bicycles including one that just makes me question "what's an electric bicycle." See - Head-head the A2B Metro and EMS Elite bicycles

EMS's Elite has a 1000 watt electric motor, top speed a bit over 30 miles/hr, on a road bike style frame. It's very fast and so easy to get up to speed ranges where the laws say it is supposed to be registered and the rider have a motorcycle license. But the manufacturer is selling it as a bicycle.

The laws about electric bicycles are murky to say the least. Some places ban electric bicycles outright for unknown mysterious reasons. Other places restrict the power to 250 watts. I think that some places must be unregulated, and anything goes. In the U.S. the general rule is 750 watts or less and 20 miles/hr or less, but every state and some cities have their own rules and it's a mixmaster of different regulations. At 1000 watts and a 30 miles/hr top speed the Elite is way beyond the majority of the legal definitions regulating electric bicycles.

Many times I've seen electric bicycle riders chafe at these rules. Limited to 20 miles/hr? Unpowered bicyclists can often go faster than that! Uh, yeah, the lycra clad types on racing bikes probably are. In my neighborhood the majority of unpowered bicyclists are riding in the 10-15 miles/hr range and sometimes slower than that.

I'm wondering about safety, about compatibility with other vehicles, and opening the eyes of the people around us to see value in electric bicycles. And I see a possible role for crossover vehicles that are recognized as being a grade above "bicycles", a grade below "motorcycles", and combine pedaling and a motor.

Safety: Would it be safe to take a cheap bicycle and put a 72 volt crystalyte system on it? Some people are doing this and I'm sure it's quite fun. But is it safe? Really? One of the legitimate roles for government is testing and validating product safety. What should government do in this case?

Compatibility: There's a continuum of transportation ranging from the pedestrians, to bicyclists, to scooters, to motorcycles, to cars, to mass transit, etc. Each tends to have their own place on the road. Bicyclists in many places have bicycle lanes giving a place where bicyclists can go bicycle speed. Bicyclists are generally not compatible with the traffic on the road, because they generally go much slower. In the bicycle lane the prevailing speed is bicycle speed while over there where the cars go the prevailing speed is faster. An electric bicycle needs to fit into one or the other, but a fast electric bicycle is going to be faster than the prevailing bicycle speed. That either will frustrate the electric bicyclist (I can go faster than the unpowered bicyclists let me go) or else be a danger as they continually pull out into car traffic to pass other bicyclists.

It is unusual for electric bicycle regulations to be based on motor power. Most vehicle definitions don't have motor power ... e.g. you can get a car with any power you want, one that can go insanely fast, much faster than the speed limit, and there's nothing to stop you so long as the car meets safety regulations. Why do electric bicycles have a limit?

Some guesswork ... I hear that one of the reasons behind banning electric bicycles is that by adding a motor the ebike falls into "motor vehicle" regulatory snafu's. If a given motor vehicle code doesn't have definitions allowing electric bicycles the authorities might say "well, it's not allowed". Also by limiting the power levels below which an electric bicycle can go unregulated it carves out an exception to the general rule that motor vehicles have to be regulated.

A hundred or so years ago when they were first developing motorcycles - they were essentially bicycles with a small gas motor. Some of the motorcycles back then even had usable pedals. Nowadays motorcycles are quite a lot hugely different (to say the least).

Riding the EMS Elite bicycle just had me thinking about this history and the gap between bicycles and motorcycles. I'm wondering whether "bicycle" is the best label for a this kind of vehicle. There is this "moped" label that for example in California's vehicle code the EMS Elite fits perfectly. A Moped in California's law has a speed up to 30 miles/hr and a motor less than 2 HP which would be 1500 watts. Mopeds have lesser regulation than motorcycles but have to meet higher regulation than bicycles. For example lighting and turn signals and rear view mirrors and horns must be up to snuff. I think they're expecting mopeds to be out in traffic rather than in the bicycle lane.

But there aren't many examples of "mopeds" being sold, today.

Some of the companies are selling scooter-bikes, which look like scooters but have a less-than-750-watts motor and speed limited to 20 miles/hr. On this forum Xtreme's XB5xx, XB6xx, XB7xx and other scooterbikes have been popular. But on those the pedals seem useless and I think many people just take the pedals off. There are also scooters with speeds up to 30 miles/hr like my EVT 4000 and those get classified as mopeds despite not having pedals.

I do think it would be quite fun having a "bike" that can combine pedaling and an electric motor and go higher speeds than the 20 miles/hr electric bicycles are limited to. It should be properly designed for the higher speed, it should have lights and horns and turn signals and such so it can be compatible with the car dominated traffic. It should be designed so that the pedals are actually useful, unlike the scooterbikes. And probably it should be regulated and licensed.


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