Bicycle plus battery and e-motor equals e-bike – that’s the popular opinion. But if you take a closer look, there are big differences when it comes to electric bikes. You can find out what they are, and what you need to look out for when buying one, here.
Whether for the commute to work, for trips out, or country rides – more and more people are relying on e-motor assistance when riding a bike, in addition to their own muscle-power. The choice of e-models is also correspondingly large nowadays: from the city bike to the trekking bike to the racing bike or mountain bike, today practically everything is out there. For retailers, it’s a lucrative business which rewards them with new record sales year on year. In 2020, sales even grew again markedly, due to coronavirus. By only mid-year, the figure of 1.1 million e-bike sales was already nibbling at the record sales for 2019 (1.3 million). In many places, the bike stores were completely sold out, even though there are now big differences involved when it comes to electric bikes.
A large battery on the frame, an e-motor between the pedals and, on the handlebars, usually a small display – purely on the outside, most electric bikes look very similar. And that’s also reflected in how we talk about them, since in most cases we simply refer to them as “e-bikes”. But when it comes to the law, there are big differences: in Germany, three classes of vehicle are defined, only one of which is actually classified as a bicycle – the pedelec (pedal electric cycle). The two other vehicle classes, S-pedelecs and e-bikes in the narrower sense, are classified as powered cycles, due to their significantly higher engine performance. The difference between bicycles classed as a pedelec or S-pedelec and e-bikes in the narrower sense lies in how they operate. While the pedelecs only assist riders when they are pedalling themselves, with an e-bike the rider can also accelerate without pedalling. For this, e-bikes are equipped with a suitable rotary throttle or button. The following regulations apply for the three vehicle classes:
Pedelecs are equated with bicycles in the eyes of the law, so in Germany you don’t need a helmet, a registration document, a number plate or a driving licence to use one. Its pedal assistance reduces as the speed increases, and at a speed of 25 km/h it is fully disengaged. On most models, the degree of assistance can be adjusted through several levels, although the maximum permitted engine power is 250 watts. For comparison: the power applied through the pedals by average cyclists is roughly 100 watts – while professional riders powering themselves up steep mountain passes generate around 400 watts. However, short-term peak performance can also be significantly higher than this. For an average cyclist, winning the Tour de France would therefore be difficult even with a pedelec, but for everyday use these electrically-assisted bikes are ideal. You can also see evidence of this on your local cycle paths, where most electric bikes are pedelecs.
If the 250 watts power of a regular pedelec is not enough by way of pedal assistance, you can upgrade to an S-pedelec (Schnell-Pedelec, or ‘speedy pedelec’). These cycles can deliver up to 500 watts of power, which is why these electrically-assisted bikes have been nicknamed “S-Class”. S-pedelecs work in the same way as regular pedelecs – but their pedal assistance is only disengaged at speeds over 45 km/h. As a consequence, these highly-tuned bikes are classified in law as mopeds, and accordingly come with a whole raft of regulations attached. For instance, to use an S-Pedelec the vehicle must be registered and carry a registration plate, and the rider needs a category AM driving licence. Accordingly, riders must be aged at least 16, must wear a helmet and are only allowed to drive on the road itself.
“True” e-bikes are something like the modern descendants of the moped: fitted with a throttle handgrip for accelerating, and with the additional option of pedal-assist systems (PAS). Like their combustion-engined predecessors, they too are a kind of preliminary level to the e-scooter or motorbike, and only rarely encountered in road traffic. If you want to ride one, it must be registered and carry a registration plate – under the transport legislation, e-bikes are classed as motorcycles. Riders must also pass a test, although the type of driving licence may vary: for electric mopeds with maximum power of 500 watts, a moped licence is sufficient, since they disengage their e-drive above speeds of 20 km/h. Above that, riders must pedal themselves. Conversely, e-bikes capable of accelerating to 45 km/h require a category AM driving licence. E-bikes are only permitted to be driven on the road itself.
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