The electric bike is fast becoming a preferred mode of transport for many in the US, but the relatively new presence of these bikes on our road means there’s still a lot of confusion out there surrounding them.
Not all of these bikes were created equally and some have more power than others, unique modes of operation, and other features that mean they need their own classification.
One of the biggest issues is the need to categorize the vehicles into classes that have to do with their configuration so that we can use them safely ourselves and ensure the safety of those we share the road with.
Without an understanding of what they’re capable of, where they can be ridden, and what other regulations are in place surrounding their use, a lot of people feel like they’re left in the dark.
So, what are the current classes of e-bikes?
Class 1 bikes can reach speeds of 20 mph, Class 2 also reaches speeds of 20 mph but with a throttle assist, and Class 3 ebikes are pedal-assist only but capable of hitting speeds of up to 28 mph. These three distinct groups are important to understand for cyclists, but also governing bodies, so they can understand where they’re able to be ridden and what other regulations might apply.
By investigating what each class entails and the features that make them unique, we’ll become responsible cyclists and ensure our safety on the road, as well as create some stability in the marketplace for the sale of e-bikes.
As regulation within the US evolves, e-bikes need their own set of rules in order to be a safe means of transport, but it’s important to understand the basics of what sets each of them apart.
- 1 What Are the Different Classes of eBikes?
- 2 Drive and Motor Systems
- 3 Regulation Within the USA
- 4 Related Questions
What Are the Different Classes of eBikes?
When looking at the classes of electric bikes, two distinct differences set them apart, which is how they’re powered up.
An electric bike can use either pedal-assist to give power to the motor which makes pedaling easier, or use a throttle which means the motor does all of the work and the cyclist isn’t required to move the pedals.
The three e-bike classes are sorted into these differences as well as the top speeds they’re able to achieve. They are as follows:
- Class 1: A pedal assist bike, also referred to as a pedelec, with a speed limited to 20 mph in the US.
- Class 2: Operated with a throttle, just like a motorcycle, these bikes are also limited to 20 mph speeds in the US.
- Class 3: Speed pedelecs achieve speeds up to 28 mph and work just like a standard pedal assist bike but with more power.
Class 1 Electric Bikes
In the United States, the pedal assist electric bike is the most common, and these bikes are restricted to speeds of 20 mph.
To operate a pedal assist bike, the rider pedals as usual and a motor attached to the bike sends power to the rear wheel which means less effort in pedaling.
The benefit of this type of bike is that it’s easier to ride, especially up an incline or reaching higher speeds, but the cyclist still gets all of the benefits of pedaling for themselves.
There are settings available on these bikes that change how much assistance is given by the motor hub, but speeds of more than 20 mph won’t be possible.
In the US, they’re designated as a class 1 bike which means they can be ridden where normal bikes are allowed, including paths and on the road.
Class 2 Electric Bikes
A throttle bike works just like a motorized scooter or bicycle and requires the rider to operate a throttle in order to give it power, with the further the throttle is pushed forward, the faster it will go.
This power is achieved without needing to pedal at all, so it makes for a completely hands-off riding experience.
As these vehicles operate just like motorbikes and are capable of reaching speeds up to 20 mph, they should be ridden on the road for safety, but as it stands in the US there is currently very little legislation on their use.
In Europe specifically, these types of e-bikes are banned as they have the potential to be more dangerous and fast, and only pedal assist vehicles are allowed.
Class 3 Electric Bikes
This is a faster pedal assist bike that’s capable of reaching speeds up to 28 mph, making it significantly faster than the class 1 pedelecs.
A pedelec operates the same, with the rider putting in the effort by spinning the pedals which in turn prompts the motor to provide power as well.
Also known as speed pedelecs, these bikes are classed as motor vehicles in the USA and so you’ll need the correct licensing to ride one legally, however they’re not usually as popular as the standard pedal assist models.
Due to their faster speeds, they should only be ridden on the road and not on footpaths.
Drive and Motor Systems
To determine the class of an electric bike, it can be helpful to look at the running system it uses.
The two most common are the mid-drive or motor, and where they’re placed on the bike will impact their speeds and capabilities.
These are some of the most popular options you might come across when searching for e-bikes and what they mean for its performance.
A mid drive motor is activated by pedaling which means they will always be found on a pedal-assist or pedelec, usually located on the bike frame
This is the most common system as it provides more power, a greater range of gears, and smoother riding experience.
Front hub motor
This is the most basic motor design and also the one with the most limitations.
You’ll commonly find a front hub motor on a throttle system Class 2 but they’re not as popular within the US.
Front hub motors are used in the cheaper conversion kits that allow you to turn your bike into an e-bike.
Rear hub motor
This system can be used on either throttle or pedal assist e-bikes, and some bikes allow for both modes.
A rear hub motor is common for more expensive conversion kits but as they weigh more, can cause an imbalance on the bike when installed.
Regulation Within the USA
To improve the sale of e-bikes and ensure that people riding them are protected, there needs to be further clarification within the US about their use.
As there is still a lot of confusion over whether they operate like standard human-powered bikes or more like a motor vehicle, finding the correct regulation has been hard for e-bikes.
Currently, at the federal level, the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates the sale of these bikes and their manufacturing guidelines.
The rules about how they’re used and their safety are then decided on a state level, which includes where on roads and paths they can and can’t be ridden.
With a clear disconnect like this, some advocacy groups have started to work towards a standardized regulation that would govern all e-bikes in all 50 states with the same rules.
To date, around 30 states have agreed with the three-class system as outlined above which categorizes the electric bikes based on their wattage, speed, and how operating system, and made it law for manufacturers to place a sticker on their vehicles to state which class they fall under.
Electric bikes are becoming a popular means of transport in the US, and as they become more common on our roads and footpaths, correct regulation has never been more important.
If you’ve been considering buying an e-bike or own one already and want to know the rules, check out these FAQs that could help you out.
Do I Have to Wear a Helmet on an E-Bike?
However, as the current legislation states, it’s not a legal requirement to wear a helmet on a bicycle or motorbike in all 50 states.
Provided you are over 21 years of age, most states will allow you to ride a motor vehicle without a helmet.
Do I Need a License To Ride an E-Bike?
Depending on the class of electric bike you own and the state you’re in, you may be required to have a driver’s license to ride it.
Class 2 e-bikes that operate with a motor rather than pedal assist will require a license to operate in most states, even if their top speeds only reach 20 mph.