Bikes and eBikes – what’s the difference?

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Published on 16 January 2020 by Mike Waters

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Filed under categories: Features, The world of motorcycling

Ryan Duffy grapples with a surprisingly complicated question: when is something with two wheels and a motor not a motorcycle?

Something whizzes past you and all you catch is a mad blur of speed. Bemused, you wonder how that thing moves so fast. It looks just like a bicycle but, with so little pedalling, it seems beyond possible that someone could move so quickly. Could it be… an eBike?

What even is an eBike, you ask? eBikes are typically a bicycle which has electrical assist technology integrated either directly at the rear wheel or through the pedal crank and a small onboard battery pack to provide power. The powertrain on these machines generally consists of a brushless electric motor, a lithium ion battery pack, a motor controller unit, a throttle and, depending on how flush you are feeling, a display. Marry this up to a bicycle frame and you have an eBike.

They are becoming increasingly popular thanks to lighter lithium battery technology replacing the heavier lead acid-based hardware in earlier machines. A battery pack (or even multiple packs) can either be conveniently removed and charged while off the bike or charged while on the bike, depending on the manufacturer’s chosen architecture. Couple this with unfathomably cheap electronics being easily accessible to the masses and the seeds have been sown for the niche form of transport to flourish.

Of course, we know that electric motorcycles exist too, with Zero, KTM and Vespa all having products in the growing market, and the electrical assist technology used in eBikes is essentially a scaled down version of that used in a full-size electric motorcycle. This leaves us with an awkward question – if it has all the ingredients of an electric motorcycle, is an eBike actually a motorcycle and not a bicycle?

grace 1231278 960 720In the beginning was the paperwork
To check if a machine is an eBike or an electric motorcycle, the list of what’s covered by the government grant towards plug-in vehicles is a good starting point. If it is qualified on the list for the grant of up to £1,500, then it is officially a motorcycle. But what if it isn’t lucky enough to be on the list? Then we turn to BMF Chairman Jim Freeman’s PTW (powered two-wheeler) test for a quick-fire quiz on the eligibility of the machine to be a motorcycle:

- Does it have two wheels? Yes
- Does it have onboard propulsion? Yes
- Does it need licensing for road use? Yes
- Does it need to be insured? Yes
- Does it meet construction and use regulations? Yes
- Does it require the user to be licensed to use it? Yes
- Does it require legally appropriate clothing? Yes
- Does it need registration to use? Yes

The offerings by Zero, KTM and Vespa mentioned earlier clearly do meet every requirement. We can’t deny that they are motorcycles, so there’s nothing to see here. Everyone riding these machines must comply with the demands placed on them by the law and will have to have taken an interest in the machine enough to go and complete the licensing process.

But what about eBikes which are commercially available from Giant, TREK and others? Let’s go back to the handy PTW list, add some of the government’s restrictions to it and see if we have a motorcycle:

- Does it have two wheels? Yes
- Does it have onboard propulsion? Yes
- Does it need licensing for road use? No
- Does it need to be insured? No
- Does it meet construction and use regulations? Yes
- Does it require the user to be licensed to use it? No
- Does it require legally appropriate clothing? No
- Does it need registration to use? No

bike 1467236 960 720Neither fish nor fowl
Okay, so eBikes fail the PTW test, aren’t motorcycles and aren’t ordinary bicycles either. Well, luckily the government has given them the catchy acronym EAPC – Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycle.

Great! Now we know that if it isn’t a motorcycle, it is an EAPC. They can be enjoyed with all of the freedom that is so often dreamt of when the annual road fund licence reminder appears though the letterbox. They can be great for holidaying where people want to explore further afield and can be great with helping people exercise where they wouldn’t otherwise have managed without the assist. Within their limits, they are a handy niche of transport.

Except that doesn’t settle the matter either. A machine only qualifies as an EAPC if it meets strict regulations, such as not being power-assisted over 15.5mph and the assist power can’t be greater than 250W either. And then there are machines like Sur-Ron Firefly, which is an electrically propelled two-wheeler that doesn’t pass the PTW test but which does exceed the restrictions of the EAPC regulations. If machines like these aren’t bicycles, motorcycles or EAPCs, what are they?

This leaves us in the biggest greyest area since the biggest greyest thing was first seen. If a machine is able to travel faster than 70km/h with a range approaching 60 miles in ideal conditions and has a structure closer to a beefed-up bicycle without pedals than a textbook motorcycle, it isn’t road legal.

However, those conditions sound pretty close to motorcycle territory, don’t they? So what do we do with machines that fall between categories or beyond them? A ban is a bit harsh, policing is nearly impossible, and requiring them to be road legal would alienate the people willing to try a two-wheeler like this.

Also, if they were banned, it’s unlikely a ban would be effective. Online communities are giving these machines a popular following and many people are building their own machines that are capable of similar speeds. The members of one such forum, Endless Sphere (link), are active in building eBikes and share knowledge on battery builds and motor tuning. They have members whose bikes exceed the EAPC limit for power by up to 10 times. Part of the success of the build-it-yourself kit approach is that they are readily available online; a 250W kit can be had for as little as £90 without a battery and attaching it to a bicycle frame doesn’t require a significant outlay.

bike 668794 960 720Hang on a minute…
Why has this happened? Is it that the mainstream motorcycle manufacturers are not catering for these needs? Have they left this market neglected, forcing people to build what they could to fill the niche?

Or perhaps there’s another way to look at it. If we take a step back for a moment and consider the long view, are these eBikes the future equivalent of the much-loved ‘sixteener specials’ for the 21st century? The technology might be new, yes, but there is a long tradition of getting people riding something that gives them freedom and of that only being the start of life on two wheels. Being in the shallow end of the pool is still being in the water, after all, and it’s easier to explore further once you’ve made it in.

Whatever the machine they are riding is filed under, the key is to convert these riders to motorcycles for life and that’s where the rest of us can play a part. We should welcome and educate the riders of all eBikes so that we as a community can help guide them and show them how the move to a fully fledged motorcycle can be beneficial for all of us.

As for the grey area issue, perhaps eBikes need specialised legislation to allow them to be a solution to city traffic. Allowing them to be classed properly by their own lights instead of awkwardly crowbarred into another category where they don’t ever truly fit could help users stay on the correct side of the law, enjoy a useful means of mobility and have their voices heard through the lobby of the BMF.

As a final thought, this isn’t the first time the question of what counts as what has come up in terms of motorcycles. The first motorised bicycles – starting with the steam-powered Michaux-Perreaux ‘Velocipede’ (link) invented in 1867, with its daring top speed of 9mph and no brakes – ultimately evolved into the motorcycle that we know today. Perhaps, in 30 years’ time, someone who is riding an eBike today will be writing articles much like this about the next ‘new’ thing too.

Ryan Duffy has worked with electric motorcycles since 2012 and runs Duffy Motorsport – an electric motorcycle race team competing at the Isle of Man TT Zero. You can get in touch with him by email at ryan@duffy-motorsport.com.

 

This feature originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of BMF Motorcycle Rider.

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