When does an e-bike become a moped?

The following text comes from my Spokesman column in the November issue of BikeBiz (click on the document above to flick through the whole mag).

The nascent electric bike industry needs to take care. If it continues to sell illegal products; laugh at current EU e-bike regulations; and push for higher and higher power outputs, it could shoot itself in the collective foot.

At Interbike, an exporter of over-powered, too-fast, no-pedalling required e-bikes into the EU snorted at the notion his products would be tested and found to be verbotten in Europe: “There’s no such thing as the watt police,” he told me.

Should a customer on one of his electric ‘bicycles’ knock down and kill a pedestrian, or an owner over-throttle the bike into the path of a juggernaut (e-splat!), the ‘watt police’ will be all over the electric bike industry like a rash.

Far too many e-bike importers and e-bike retailers either don’t know what the legal regulations stipulate or wantonly ignore them. The e-bike industry is still in the Wild West phase, but enforcement will come.

Sales of e-bikes are surging across Europe. They are marketed as the latest thing in zippity-zip city chic; bikes with an integrated tailwind. Sit down, pedal gently, no sweat. A cyclist must crank out 100 watts to propel a bicycle to 20 kilometres an hour. An e-bike provides a battery-powered boost of up to 250 watts. Donkeys become race-horses.

E-bikes take less effort to propel, but they’re not super-fast. This means they are classified as bicycles in the EU, not scooters. No motor vehicle licence required; no hair-crushing helmet; and where a bicycle can go, an e-bike can go. E-bikes have the same advantages of bicycles, and none of the perceived disadvantages.

China, alone, is said to have 100 million e-bikes on the road. However, the e-bike of China is a very different animal to the e-bike legally allowed to be called a bicycle in the EU.
E-bikes in Europe are limited to 25kph and need to be propelled by pedalling as well as the motor. Torque sensors measure a rider’s pedalling effort and then provide the requisite amount of additional oomph. Hills are flattened; headwinds deflated, but only so long as the cyclist keeps pedalling. The majority of Chinese e-bikes – selling at a rate of 21 million a year – are throttle-controlled, no pedalling required.

It’s estimated 750,000 e-bikes will have been sold in Europe by the end of 2009. Many of them are illegal for use in the EU. Far too many of them are throttle-controlled rather than pedal-assisted. These aren’t electric bicycles, they’re mopeds.

And trade organisations know it. Brussels-based ETRA – the European twowheel retailers association – is currently lobbying for a law change because it realises far too many e-bikes for sale flaunt the regulations as they stand. ETRA wants wattage to be increased. US-based LEVA – the Light Electric Vehicle Association – also wants the rules to be changed, but wants an increase in allowable power and speed.

The danger in all this lobbying is that electric bikes will come to be seen as light motorbikes. That’s fine if you want to import or sell light motorbikes but isn’t this the bicycle industry?