Ebikes are classed according to the power that their electric motor can deliver and the control system, i.e., when and how the power from the motor is applied. Also, the classification of e-bikes is complicated as much of the definition is due to legal reasons of what constitutes a bicycle and what constitutes a moped or motorcycle. As such, the classification of these e-bikes varies greatly across countries and local jurisdictions.
Despite these legal complications, the classification of e-bikes is mainly decided by whether the e-bike’s motor assists the rider using a pedal-assist system or by a power-on-demand one. Definitions of these are as follows:
- With pedal assist, the electric motor is regulated by pedalling. The pedal assist augments the efforts of the rider when they are pedalling. These e-bikes – called pedelecs – have a sensor to detect the pedalling speed, the pedalling force, or both. Brake activation is sensed to disable the motor as well.
- With power-on-demand, the motor is activated by a throttle, usually handlebar-mounted just like on most motorcycles or scooters.
Therefore, very broadly, e-bikes can be classed as:
- E-bikes with pedal assist only: either pedelecs (legally classed as bicycles) or S-Pedelecs (often legally classed as mopeds)
- Pedelecs: have pedal-assist only, motor assists only up to a decent but not excessive speed (usually 25 km/h or 16 mph), motor power up to 250 W (0.34 hp), often legally classed as bicycles
- S-Pedelecs: have pedal-assist only, motor power can be greater than 250 W (0.34 hp), can attain a higher speed (e.g., 45 km/h or 28 mph)) before the motor stops assisting, sometimes legally classed as a moped or motorcycle.
- E-bikes with power-on-demand and pedal-assist
- E-bikes with power-on-demand only: often have more powerful motors than pedelecs but not always, the more powerful of these are legally classed as mopeds or motorcycles
E-bikes with pedal assist only are usually called pedelecs but can be broadly classified into pedelecs proper and the more powerful S-Pedelecs.
The term “pedelec” (from the pedal electric cycle) refers to a pedal-assist e-bike with a relatively low-powered electric motor and a decent but not excessive top speed. Pedelecs are legally classed as bicycles rather than low-powered motorcycles or mopeds.
The most influential definition of pedelecs comes from the EU. EU directive (EN15194 standard) for motor vehicles considers a bicycle to be a pedelec if:
- The pedal-assist, i.e. the motorised assistance that only engages when the rider is pedalling, cuts out once
- 25 km/h (16 mph) is reached, and
- when the motor produces maximum continuous rated power of not more than 250 W (0.34 hp) (n.b. the motor can produce more power for short periods, such as when the rider is struggling to get up a steep hill).
An e-bike conforming to these conditions is considered to be a pedelec in the EU and is legally classed as a bicycle. The EN15194 standard is valid across the whole of the EU and has also been adopted by some non-EU European nations and also some non-European jurisdictions (such as the state of Victoria in Australia).
Pedelecs are much like conventional bicycles in use and function—the electric motor only provides assistance, for example, when the rider is climbing or struggling against a headwind. Pedelecs are therefore especially useful for people in hilly areas where riding a bike would prove too strenuous for many to consider taking up cycling as a daily means of transport. They are also useful for riders who more generally need some assistance, e.g. for people with heart, leg muscle or knee joint issues.
More powerful pedelecs which are not legally classed as bicycles are dubbed S-Pedelecs (short for Schnell-Pedelecs, i.e. Speedy-Pedelecs) in Germany. These have a motor more powerful than 250 W (0.34 hp) and less limited, or unlimited, pedal-assist, i.e. the motor does not stop assisting the rider once 25 km/h (16 mph) has been reached. S-Pedelec class e-bikes are therefore usually classified as mopeds or motorcycles rather than as bicycles and therefore may (depending on the jurisdiction) need to be registered and insured, the rider may need some sort of driver’s license (either car or motorcycle) and motorcycle helmets may have to be worn. In the United States, many states have adopted S-Pedelecs into the Class 3 category. Class 3 e-bikes are limited to not more than 750 W (1.01 hp) of power and 28 mph (45 km/h).
Power-on-demand and pedal-assist
Some newer electric bikes include a pedal assist system (PAS) with or without throttle, allowing riders to pedal alongside the electric motor to increase distance per charge. There are also electric bike conversion kits for turning non-electric bikes into e-bikes.
Some e-bikes have an electric motor that operates on a power-on-demand basis only. In this case, the electric motor is engaged and operated manually using a throttle, which is usually on the handgrip just like the ones on a motorbike or scooter. These sorts of e-bikes often, but not always, have more powerful motors than pedelecs do.
With power-on-demand-only e-bikes, the rider can:
- ride by pedal power alone, i.e. fully human-powered.
- ride by the electric motor alone by operating the throttle manually.
- ride using both together at the same time.
Some power-on-demand-only e-bikes can hardly be confused with, let alone categorised as, bicycles. For example, the Noped is a term used by the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario for e-bikes which do not have pedals or in which the pedals have been removed from their motorised bicycle. These are better categorised as electric mopeds or electric motorcycles.