e-bike consultation: ‘More Watts? – Smarter regulation?’

Why I support the Govt consultation: ‘Smarter regulation: proposed changes to legislation for electrically assisted pedal cycles’ – by Richard Attwood.

Richard Attwood, Author

The Govt has just (29.02.24) launched a consultation , as part of a wider Smarter Regulation Programme, to explore the possibility of an increase in the current legally permissible wattage rating of electric bikes (e-bikes), and also of the manner in which they are propelled by the rider. In this consultation they have set out a clear and to my mind convincing rationale for exploring how more powerful e-bikes can contribute to the pressing need to facilitate more Active travel behaviour, thus improving the nation’s health, reducing transport costs and emissions, cutting congestion and making local areas more attractive places in which to live and work.
I support this proposal, both in terms of the environmental and societal rationale above, and for the reasons set out below, based on my own experience as an everyday e-bike user.

There have been some alarmist reactions published in the press, doubtless and understandably driven by recent accounts of incidents involving illegally powerful and fast electrically powered bikes (these are legally classed as Mopeds, not bicycles) and of battery fires associated with poor quality imported batteries and battery chargers being used on these machines. Concerns have also been raised by e-bike users themselves, and by some in the cycle industry, who are rightly wary of any changes that might be used as levers to challenge the legal ‘bicycle’ status of the current e-bikes.
Whilst understandable, I strongly believe that these concerns are not always founded on a full and clear understanding, either of the capabilities of the current crop of e-bikes, or of the type and degree of difference 500W motors could actually make if permitted. I have attempted to address this below.

Currently, bone fide electrically assisted bikes can be ridden, by anyone over 14 years of age, in the same manner as a ‘normal’ bicycle, that is on both the highway and on dedicated cycle infrastructure, and without the legal requirement for vehicle registration, insurance, and a helmet. At this point, and for the purposes of this particular discussion, it is worth clarifying the following commonly misunderstood aspects of electric bikes, known as electrically assisted pedal cycles (EAPCs) in the UK and EU.

To meet the legal definition as an EAPCs they:
● Must be fitted with pedals that are capable of propelling it.
● The electrical assistance must cut-off when the vehicle reaches 15.5mph
● The maximum continuous rated power of the electric motor must not exceed 250 Watts(250W)*
*In terms of power, it is important, in the context of this discussion, to be aware that the current crop of 250W e-bikes produce a wide range of differing power outputs, depending on motor type and sophistication. Some are designed to be legally capable of producing 600W or more, but only for brief periods of intense demand, e.g. when tackling steep hills and/or heavy loads. This is because, in both the UK and Europe, the term “continuous rated power” is key (rather than Peak power) It is defined as “the maximum thirty minutes power at the output shaft of an electric engine as set out in UNECE regulation No 85.”

E-bikes are currently permitted to offer a ‘Walk assist’ powered mode as an aid when walking the bike around or up ramps etc. This allows for assistance up to just under 4 mph. Beyond that, the motor is only permitted to provide assistance when the rider is pedalling.

Here in the UK, a legal quirk means e-bikes can already be legally equipped and sold with a so-called ‘Twist and go’ or ‘Throttle only’ option, allowing your e-bike to propel you up to the legal 15.5 mph limit without pedalling, using some form of throttle mechanism (thumb push or twist grip), just as long as it is first type approved as an L1e electric bike in the 250W Low Powered Moped category at an MOT station.

At least one reputable UK manufacturer has set up this provision and can supply an e-bike set up inthis manner. In this scenario the availability of 500W motors would, as the consultation says, increase the capability and effectiveness of this very egalitarian option in more demanding situations, whilst still keeping within legal and safe limits.

Adding the electrical and physical components – motor, battery, controller – to make a ‘normal’ bike into an e-bike increases the weight of the bike by no more than 4 to 8 kilos, depending on the system and battery size, however the typically robust build of e-bikes intended for everyday use means they actually weigh around 20 to 25kgs in total, and purpose built ‘Cargo’ models around 30kg.

As regards weight and deceleration concerns, reputable models have a stated weight limit to suit their capabilities, and modern disc brakes are well up to the job of stopping an e-bike safely, and of course the bike will still only be receiving assistance at 15.5 mph or less.

The author uses an electrically assisted car-replacing mid-sized load carrying bike as everyday transport in a hilly city. (It’s basically a sturdy Hybrid style bike with a longer and stronger rear rack). This e-bike can legally carry a 65kg load or passenger, and has a maximum total permissible weight limit, including the rider and the bike, of 180Kg. The ability of my e-bike to move all this mass around a hilly city safely and without undue strain on the rider or the machine is down to this particular bike’s sophisticated (and expensive) 250W rated system being designed to briefly produce 600W or more under load.
As a 95kg rider who makes the most of my bike’s design capacity (e.g. hauling a small car boot’s worth of shopping in the big panniers) I really appreciate this high ‘peak’ wattage capability and the safe acceleration it affords. Those watts enable me to negotiate my place neatly and safely in and around the traffic flow, to the benefit of all road users. For example when I’m pulling away well loaded, on a hill, say from traffic lights, I’m counting on every one of those 600 odd watts to make safe progress, and I would definitely value the increased safety margin a few more watts would afford, and maybe I would even be able to actually reach the maximum assisted 15.5mph on my gradual climb back home from the city!

My e-bike simply wouldn’t be the car replacement it has become without the high levels of ability described above.

All this capability is also down to the fact that my particular bike has a purpose built ‘Mid mounted’ motor, which itself requires a purpose built frame to sit the motor in. These particular features however come at very significant financial outlay, putting such as this sort of powerful Mid driven e-bike option beyond the reach of many potential individual users, and doubtless of some of the burgeoning ‘last mile’ type delivery solutions being promoted in people
busy town centres and urban areas.

If these proposals are enacted and 500W motors are allowed, users will have a choice of either wheel mounted ‘Hub’ drives or the more budget priced imported Mid drives. It is important to be clear that these options, in particular the Hub drive motors, do not produce equivalent levels of power (wattage) compared to the more sophisticated and expensive European makes. Typically, 500W motors are capable of generating only around 25% more power than a high spec Euro mid drive, and the premium imported 500W Mid drives up to 40% more. They are not twice as powerful, as the bald numbers would suggest and people may be interpreting, they do however offer this moderate increase in hauling power at lower speeds and significantly less cost, and also, crucially in terms of cost, greater adaptability to differing frame designs and functions.

For context, the number of watts, or the power that the motor of a particular e-bike develops at any given time, translates into the bike’s ability to move itself, the rider and any load. More watts equals more power, and more power, in the context of these proposals means moving loads more efficiently and safely. It does not mean more speed, and it won’t increase the acceleration capability beyond that of the current more high spec e-bikes already legally in use now. It will however offer the rider the ability to move a heavy load off the mark safely, and get up to a reasonable (albeit the current restricted) speed quickly, making for effective and economical delivery times. 

To use a motoring analogy: The power of 500W motors, as proposed in this consultation, will increase the pulling power you’d expect from a diesel engined family car or van, it will not increase the speed you’d expect from a power increase in a sporty GTi.

Upping the limit to 500W and permitting throttle control will open up the possibility of a more useful level of assistance being available to a much wider audience, be that the person mentioned in the consultation who, for whatever reason, has difficulty pedalling a bicycle but wishes to avail
themselves of the health, cost and enjoyment benefits of assisted cycling, or it may be the load lugging industry looking for economically realistic options as they endeavour to produce options to replace heavy and polluting commercial vehicles carrying stuff around in people busy areas. In both these particular instances, having the finesse of throttle control rather than heaving on pedals whilst navigating busy areas will facilitate safer control.

The consultation includes the question: Do you support or oppose limiting either or both of the proposals to e-cargo bikes?  Personally I would oppose this limitation. I think that it would be impractical and defeat the objective of creating safe, good quality light electric transport options. For example I would not class my own and similar bikes  as ‘Cargo’ bikes per se. Although capable of carrying loads of stuff or a passenger (or two small ones), I chose my  model specifically for its multifunctional character (including riding on rough tracks), whereas mainstream ‘proper’ big, long, or multi wheeled Cargo bikes would not have this range of ability.

Also, with reference to the Delivery culture, the bikes that are being adopted here aren’t Cargo bikes, they are smaller and less multifunctional,  chosen more for their ruggedness, comfort, simplicity and low cost.

As regards the concerns about battery safety, size is not the issue. Current mainstream e-bikes have batteries of up to 800Wh or more, some have two fitted! The safety of the current ubiquitous Lithium based batteries is basically dependent on the quality of components and of manufacture, and on using the correct ‘matched’ charger for the system. Battery safety is therefore dependent on the regulation and enforcement of the supply and sale of good quality, affordable batteries and their components, and of good practice when charging, both of which the industry and regulators appear to be waking up to as this sector develops.

As a point of note, 500W systems are invariably 48 volt, rather than the 250W 36V norm, and 48v batteries offer more capacity for their size, and one of the useful side effects of this proposal is that users will be able to access properly regulated good quality systems with more useful and reliable power legitimately (but with the same
speed restrictions as at present), rather than relying on dubious imports.

As an aside, I wonder if this is at some level also a constructive attempt to address the burgeoning electric bike (i.e. Not bona-fide e-bikes) delivery industry by, in effect, offering a legal option to those riders who just wish to make good loaded progress (and income) during their shift without having cycling fitness..…so to basically bring a chunk of this currently rogue carry on ‘into the fold’, where they will be able to access properly regulated good quality systems with more useful and reliable power legitimately (but with the same speed restrictions as now), rather than relying on dubious imports as they do currently.

So based on my own everyday experience, and on the developing maturity of the market as regards safe components and practices, I believe the availability of 500W motors would, as the consultation suggests, facilitate more widespread and appropriate use of electrically assisted light transport options, with good societal benefit, without compromising safety.

Finally, for this discussion to remain objective and useful it is essential to avoid any conflation of prospective, legally restricted 500watt motors with those capable of producing 500watts and more
currently available on the internet. These are invariably associated with illegal, unrestricted systems that are capable of speeds beyond the legally permitted 15.5mph.

You can make your views known via the consultation until 11:59pm on 25 April 2024.

Richard Attwood.

PS I’ve yet to hear a similar outcry about the massive and worrying increase in weight and speed of everyday electric cars……..

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