This is an unofficial guide to the laws governing electric bicycles in the United States as of 2016. It was contributed by a guest writer The Smart Ped`aleck who was paid and remains unaffiliated with any electric bicycle company. It may be updated ongoing and is cited throughout with reference links and attributions at the end. It is designed to be an entertaining starting point for understanding the space, digging deeper and in turn choosing the best electric bike platform for your needs.
Play it Safe, Make it Easy – E-bike manufacturers will offer you a large variety of styles, types, colors and utility, but the base specifications will be a bike producing less than 750 watts of power (1 horsepower = 746W) , and have its speed limited to 20mph on motor power alone. The majority of US ebikes meet that specification. Manufacturers do this for their own liability. Going this route assures you that your bike was built and sold legally. As a result, you will have about every privilege that a normal bicycle can expect. However, state and local laws may dictate reduced speeds and limited access to bike paths.
The definition was clearly written with gasoline-powered pedalcycles in mind. The requirement of an automatic transmission is troublesome for those who just want to add an electric-assist motor to a bicycle, for almost all bicycles have transmissions consisting of chains and manually shifted sprockets. The registration form asks for a VIN, making it difficult to register some foreign-made ebikes. The fine for riding an unregistered electric bike is approximately $160.00 per event as of 2007.
Oregon Law (ORS 801.258) defines an electric assisted bicycle as an electric motor-driven vehicle equipped with operable pedals, a seat or saddle for the rider, no more than three wheels in contact during travel. In addition, the vehicle must be equipped with an electric motor that is capable of applying a power output of no greater than 1,000 watts, and that is incapable of propelling the vehicle at a speed no greater than 20 miles per hour on level ground.
While the first functional battery was developed in the year 1800 by Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, a practical battery would not be seen for several decades yet. By the end of the 19th century, practical and portable batteries were more widely available, this finally freeing the electric motor to be used in a wide new array of applications. It might come as a surprise, but the electric motor, battery, and a bicycle were first paired as far back as the 1890s. It would be approximately 100 years later that electric bicycle development finally entered the mainstream, but the technology and concept behind the electric bike were all in place generations ago.
The $3,099 MSRP is a bit daunting if you've not shopped for high-end bikes before, but it compares favorably with, say, Trek's electric bike lineup. That said, you can get a solid urban/commuter bike without a motor for well under $1,000. You can even score an e-bike for under a grand, but you'll likely be looking at a battery range of less than 40 miles, along with lower-quality components.
In summary, federal law trumps all States’ laws. That is true with bicycle law, too. States cannot constitutionally pass legislation that reduces or eliminates Federal laws, they can only pass legislation that enacts additional (tighter) restrictions on its people. States can’t define an ebike a bicycle if greater than 750W/20mph, nor can they define an ebike a motor vehicle if less than the Federal Government’s limit of 750 Watts and a top electric-powered speed of 20 MPH.3This is the Federal definition of a low speed electric bike, which equates it to a bicycle.
The pedals on a motorised bicycle must be the primary source of power for the vehicle. If the motor is the primary source of power then the device cannot be classed as a motorised bicycle. For example, a device where the rider can twist a throttle and complete a journey using motor power only without using the pedals, would not be classed as a motorised bicycle.
In China, which has the highest number of electric bicycles in the world, electric bikes currently come under the same classification as bicycles and hence don't require a driver's license to operate. Previously it was required that users registered their bike in order to be recovered if stolen, although this has recently been abolished. Due to a recent rise in electric-bicycle-related accidents, caused mostly by inexperienced riders who ride on the wrong side of the road, run red lights, don't use headlights at night etc, the Chinese government plans to change the legal status of illegal bicycles so that vehicles with an unladen weight of 20 kg or more and a top speed of 30kmh or more will require a motorcycle license to operate, while vehicles lighter than 20 kg and slower than 30kmh can be ridden unlicensed. In the southern Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen, electric bicycles, like all motorcycles, are banned from certain downtown districts. There are also bans in place in small areas of Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing.
There are individuals who claim to have lost considerable amounts of weight by using an electric bike. A recent prospective cohort study however found that people using e-bikes have a higher BMI. By making the biking terrain less of an issue, people who wouldn't otherwise consider biking can use the electric assistance when needed and otherwise pedal as they are able. This means people of lower fitness levels or who haven't cycled in many years can start enjoying the many health benefits E-bikes have to offer.