What are the different “classes” of ebikes, and how should I choose between ebike classes when shopping for an ebike? These are common questions we get from visitors to Really Good Ebikes.
In this article, we break down the different classes, and help you decide which one will best meet your needs.
The federal government has defined and regulated “electric-assisted bicycles'' - commonly referred to as ebikes - since 2002. Under Public Law 107-319, electric bikes are governed by the same regulations that cover traditional, human-powered bicycles. Ebikes are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and must comply with conventional bicycle safety standards.
For the purpose of federal regulations, ebikes are not “motor vehicles” and are thus not subject to vehicle standards set forth by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Public Law 107-319 is meant to ensure that electric bikes are designed, manufactured and tested like traditional bicycles for the purpose of consumer product safety law.
Under federal law, low-speed electric bicycles are defined as “a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.”
Wow, that’s a mouthful, but we will help translate that into normal human language. Importantly, this definition only provides the maximum assisted speed that an electric bike can travel when being powered only by the motor; it does not provide a maximum assisted speed when an ebike is being powered by a combination of human and motor power. Therefore, the maximum allowable speed will be whatever is allowed based on the local traffic laws, which all bicycle riders are subject to.
Over 30 states have incorporated electric bikes into their traffic codes, regulating them in a manner similar to conventional bicycles. The remaining states have outdated laws that lack specific classifications for ebikes, and often treat ebikes as a moped or scooter. This has created a significant amount of confusion for consumers, manufacturers and retailers.
The advocacy group People for Bikes devised a three-class system to categorize electric bikes, allowing them to be regulated based on their maximum assisted speed and whether or not they have a throttle.
For all classes, the maximum power output is 750 watts (1 h.p.), and manufacturers and distributors of electric bicycles would be required to apply a class identification label to each electric bicycle.
Unfortunately, these classes of ebikes are somewhat disconnected from the reality of the market, which is dominated by models falling within the Class 2 definition. There are very few Class 1 or Class 3 ebikes available in the US. The simple fact is that ebike enthusiasts love their throttles, which allow you to ride your bike without the need for pedaling.
Most ebikes on the market today include a conventional geared drivetrain, so that you can shift gears like a regular bike, based on riding conditions. They also have a pedal assist system (PAS) which gives you a boost while pedaling, regardless of which gear you choose to ride in. And importantly, they have a twist or thumb throttle, which can engage the motor whether or not you choose to pedal. Ebike throttles are awesome, and it’s unfortunate that they have been stigmatized by bicycle advocacy groups and government regulators.
In fact, any ebike which exceeds the Class 2 criteria, by having a motor that exceeds 750W, has a throttle or can exceed 20 mph maximum assist speed, are basically treated like a moped or scooter. These are sometimes referred to as Class 4 motor vehicles, which require licensing and registration, and which are prohibited from use in bike lanes or on public trails.
In our opinion, consumers should use common sense when shopping for ebikes, and not worry about the ever-changing regulatory landscape. When shopping for an ebike, it is much more important to focus on the type of rider you are, and what kind of riding you plan on doing, than to worry about the various overlapping and sometimes conflicting regulations set forth by local, state, regional and federal regulators.
If you want a bike that is comfortable to ride, with an upright riding posture that relieves strain on the neck, shoulders and arms, then you should focus your search on cruiser style ebikes. If you want a bike that is easy to mount and dismount, then check out all of the step-thru models available. If you plan on riding on rough, unpaved trails, a fat tire electric mountain bike may be the best choice for you. Only then, after considering the frame style, you can look at motor power and throttle type. For most riders, a 350W or 500W motor will have sufficient power for most riding conditions. However, if you are a hunter who plans on towing a heavy load, or if you yourself weigh over 250 pounds, then a 750W or 1000W motor would be preferable.
While we are not scofflaws and do not advocate breaking rules, we do not believe that your choice of ebikes should be driven by any specific set of regulations. Moreover, there are no markings on ebikes which specify their class, nominal motor wattage or maximum level of assistance, so it’s really impossible to tell which class an ebike is just by looking at it. Likewise, we do not believe that traffic cops or park rangers have the knowledge or inclination to cite riders for violating obscure ebike classification standards. That being said, it is crucially important that you follow the rules of the road, do not exceed posted speed limits, and always wear a helmet.
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