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What makes something an eBike?

What makes something an eBike?

July 07, 2022 | Justin Christopher

The "bike" in the image at the top of this page? It's not an eBike at all. With the explosive growth of electric motor and battery technology, the market for eBikes (electric bikes) has grown significantly. Popularity of some devices that look like eBikes, but aren't actually eBikes, are growing as well.

If you're shopping for electric transportation or recreation, it's important to understand what makes an eBike an eBike under the law. There are also some specific reasons you may want to avoid products that don't meet the eBike criteria. Let's review the legal requirements:

eBikes are regulated at both the Federal and State levels

  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates eBike features and capabilities at the Federal level, but does not preempt local laws.
  • State and local governments determine which classes of eBikes can be operated on local roads, paths, sidewalks, and trails.
  • State and local governments can also apply additional requirements, like helmet use, speed limits, or age limitations.

This means that the CPSC has some rules for eBikes at the Federal level (for example: product safety regulations) but most of the "what can I ride, where can I ride it" questions are actually up to your state.

eBikes are required to carry a label with their specifications

These labels are required in states that have adopted the Class I, II, III model legislation, which attempts to streamline eBike rules and regulations so they're consistent from state to state - that's 37 of the 50 states, as of this writing.

The label must be applied to the eBike frame and shows:

  • The wattage of the motor, 
  • The top speed,
  • and the eBike Class rating (I, II, or III)

each displayed in Arial font, at least 9 points or larger. Look for the label when shopping for eBikes - an eBike with no such label is a major red flag.

The legal maximum for eBike motor wattage

The maximum limit for eBike motors is 750 watts (1 h.p.) by Federal law, as well in the 37 states that have adopted the uniform eBike legislation. Bikes that have larger motors may be illegal to ride on public streets and trails.

As a result, you should apply careful scrutiny to any seller offering an "eBike" with a motor that exceeds 750 watts and confirm that it's allowable in your area before buying.

eBikes must have pedals

EBikes have operable pedals that the rider can operate to propel the bike by pedaling. "Bikes" with two whels but static foot pegs or a platform the rider stands on, like a scooter, or electric skateboards, are not eBikes and don't meet the Class I, II, III requirements.

What about licensing, registration, or insurance?

In the 37 states that have adopted the model Class I, II, III eBike legislation, conforming eBikes have no licensing, registration, or insurance requirements - another reason to choose a properly rated and labeled eBike.

Purchasing a device that lacks pedals, or exceeds the maximum allowable speed limit or motor wattage requirements could expose the rider to licensing, registration, and insurance requirements that they didn't anticipate - yet another reason to choose an eBike that carries the Class I, II, III sticker.

What looks like an eBike, but isn't?

There are many products that look like eBikes, but aren't. A common example would be the headlines stating "Celebrity Simon Cowell in eBike accident", when actually he was riding an electric motorcycle capable of 60 MPH, with a motor output of more than 10x the limit for electric bicycles! That's not an eBike at all.

Another growing market segment are products that look like bicycles - two wheels, handlebars, brakes - but don't have pedals. Instead, the rider rests their feet on foot pegs and uses a throttle to turn the motor on. These also are not eBikes - eBikes require operable pedals that the rider can use to propel the bike.

Consequences of riding unrated "eBikes"

Riders who use unrated eBikes, high-speed scooters, and similar products face some risks. In addition to registration and licensing requirements, citation or confiscation are also a possibility. For example, New York recently publicly destroyed nearly 100 non-compliant "bikes" of various styles which had been confiscated from their riders!