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Electric bikes at 250W: the view has opened up nicely

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The Conversation

If you’ve not ridden an electric bicycle yet, chances are you know someone who has. Or maybe someone rode past you on one and you thought it was a conventional bike. Changes in permitted power output means you’ll likely be seeing more, and better, electric bikes coming your way (or riding past you).

If you’ve been lured by an electric bike, my colleagues and I would like to hear from you, as I’ll discuss a little later. But first, for the uninitiated, let’s start with the basics: what is an electric bike?

An electric bike has motorised assistance that allows the cyclist to ride further with less effort. Think of it as having a reliable tailwind to help you on your way up hills.

The distinct difference is how the motorised assistance works: pedal assist or handlebar throttle. Confusion arises because both pedal assist and handlebar throttle are often referred to as electric bikes, or e-bikes for short.

Pedal-assist or pedelec bikes require the rider to pedal to gain the advantage of the electric model. Put simply, for a pedal-assist bike, no pedalling equals no power.

In contrast, an e-bike with a handlebar throttle, a simple flick of the switch or twist of the handlebar will propel the bike forward – without pedalling.

Electric bike manufacturers and retailers have been building and importing powered bicycles in Australia for more than two decades but a change is in the wind thanks to new government regulations.

A change of gear

In May, the Australian government amended the Australian Design Rules to adopt the European rule (EN 15194:2009), and this changed some of the rules around electric bikes. The biggest change was the increase to their permitted power output from 200 to 250 watts.

Motorised assistance will cut out at 25km/h. You can go faster than 25km/h, but you need to be pedalling – the battery will not provide any extra push.

While some countries, and some states of the US, allow electric bikes of up to 1,000 watts, any bicycle powered by an auxiliary motor that exceeds 250 watts in Australia will be classified a motorbike and must be registered and ridden by a licenced rider.

In addition to further clarifying the definitions of electric bikes, the government’s changes to permitted power outputs have brought Australia inline internationally.

While 50 watts more may not seem a big increase, it’s potentially a game-changer for electric bikes.

For riders, it means going up hills will be a little easier, with extra torque, although the top speed will still cut out at 25km/h and the distance you can ride with electric motor assistance will be about the same.

The real improvement is the variety of electric bikes that can now be sold in Australia.

Out with the old

Internationally, 250 watts is a common standard power output; subsequently, many electric bikes being designed and manufactured globally have 250-watt motors.

As a result, the electric bikes available in Australia until now have been a mixed bag. At one end, small businesses that specialise in custom-built electric bikes offered a quality product that has improved with each new generation of bike, better battery technology and advancements in design.

But the market has been flooded with cheap electric bikes, sold over the internet or imported in containers and sold from warehouses in cardboard packing boxes.

While initially inexpensive for the consumer – in the region of A$1,000 – these products lack after-sales service and support. When something (inevitably) does go wrong, the consumer is left with a very heavy bike.

In with the new

The amended Australian Design Rules mean sophisticated new electric bike designs with the latest technology are legally available, and what was once a boutique industry with a discrete custom market share is about to go mainstream.

Quality electric bikes with excellent after-sales service and support range from A$2,000-A$3,000. More expensive than a standard pushbike, electric bikes are significantly cheaper than many high-end bicycles, which range from A$5,000-A$10,000 and beyond.

Electric bikes are already mainstream in one Australian company – Australia Post. While some companies are replacing one fleet vehicle with e-bikes for short trips made by staff, Australia Post is the poster child for electric bikes with more than 1,000 electric bikes in their fleet.

Australia Post has worked with bicycle designers and manufacturers to improve the design of the bicycle to maximise the safety and efficiency for posties en route – and this has impacted the geometry of the bikes and their luggage capacity.

Each generation of battery also further improves the distance the e-bikes can travel on a single charge.

Get in touch

Our study at the Institute of Transport Studies at Monash University is investigating what influenced people to buy an electric bike and what their experiences have been using them.

Our findings will assist to develop future policies aimed at increasing the safety and sustainability of the transport system, including electric bikes.

Whether the electric bike provides a stepping stone from the car to a pedal bike remains to be seen. But the individual benefits that can be gained by reducing people’s reliance on cars and increasing their physical activity will also help reduce congestion and vehicle exhaust pollution on our roads.

While some bicycle models are clearly electric bikes with a battery pack plain to see, many of the models are not visibly electric and are difficult to differentiate for other road users.

As with all cycling activity, the question of safety also impacts electric bike riders and feeds into the issue of adequate and connected bicycle facilities on and off roads, as well as behavioural issues with other road users.

So you ride an electric bike, or know someone who does? Do let us know and, of course, safe riding!

You can participate in this study online.

Marilyn Johnson is a research fellow at Monash University. She receives funding from the Australian Research Council for this study. She is also the Research and Policy Manager at the Amy Gillett Foundation.

This article was originally published on The Conversation – theconversation.edu.au. Reproduced with permission.

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  • colin

    I own one, and the after sales service on the electric components particularly electric hubs leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve been trying to get a spare hub/gears for a San Jiang 200W 24V electric hub for months. Indeed it is best to examine electric hubs verses chain drives for a variety of reasons. Electric hubs supply power directly to the tread, rather than via the rear derailers. Hence, electricity assist wise, it is a one gear fits all situation. As well, the electric hub takes up the space that cassette derailers would normally use, so you are limited to derailers using freewheeling cogs, which essentially is old technology and limits the availability of quality cogs on the derailers. Chain drives put the electric assist through the derailer and allow the use of (cheap) 8 and 10 cog cassettes. I think the after sales service on chain drives is a lot better as well. The PAS (pedal assist system) has various variations on both the rider input and needs to be looked at carefully, along with the “smarts” incorporated into the hardware. Batteries are batteries. Oh and watch the weight.

  • Aaron

    E-bike rider in North Queensland and happy to share my experiences

  • http://Allthingssustainable.wordpress.com Jo Lewis

    I bought a folding electric bike -$2000 It was fine at first but then the power started to cut out when going up the hills and as up hill help was what I wanted it now moulders unused.

  • Dave

    E-bike rider in WA. Have owned one for about 6 years, though the first controller came to grief, due to an accident not a fault, after about 18 months, and it took a long time to find a replacement.
    Currently have one in our office which I ride 25km home after work, primarily for the savings in transport costs, and it is also a bit faster than public transport.

  • David Edmunds

    This decision does not address any particular problem. Many electric bike motors and controllers are not limited to the battery pack specified for a 250W limit. they may have “250W” stamped on them, but if you use a battery pack of, say, 48V rather than 24V, then you have four times the stamped power.

    It may not be that the bulk of electric bike buyers will play with their systems in this fashion, but many will.

    In any case, the 25kmh limit on the bike controllers does not solve any particular problem. A halfway fit rider on a standard road bike can quite happily maintain 35kmh, and a fit rider considerably more.

    it is also a fair bet that electric bicycle manufacturers will install a switch in the controller that will override the speed limit, in just the same way as car and motorcycle manufacturers design electronics that allow the enthusiast to play with engine settings. that is what the market demands.

    It would make far more sense not to worry unduly about what people are riding, and for the authorities to concentrate on systems to separate the casual and child riders from fast-moving enthusiasts.

    • Alistair

      It’s not the size of the battery that governs speed , that dictates how far one can travel and accelerate ….. But is limited by the motor and the controller , also a 250w motor may be capable of putting out far greater than its nameplate , not because of the battery , but because it is the controller that governs how much power a motor can draw …. …..so really it’s the controller that should be regulated , except that all of this is descriminatory against heavier riders and those who want to carry loads

  • http://www.quietrush.com.au Brian

    Another eBike owner (disclosure:am also a dealer via http://store.quietrush.com.au) here! Interesting comments folks – for those interested in helping to capture your views, the article over at The Conversation includes the link to the Monash research survey https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ebikes which I recommend participating in..

  • delta

    In Canada we have the good fortune to be allowed 500 watt motors and speeds up to 32 kph. This is much more useful and the number of ebikes is increasing exponentially here.

    500 watts gives you much more torque to work with when going up hills and it is the speed that should be controlled more than the power.

    I don’t know what the fear is. Every ebike represents one less car on the road. I think that power restrictions that you have there are really meant to limit your options and the desirability of ebikes.

    • http://store.quietrush.com.au Brian

      I’ve spoken with plenty of eBike owners who’ve experienced similar tales of grief when dealing with the cheaper end of the market – can be very hard to get after sales support and bike ships willing to service the cheaper stuff. Whilst our bikes aren’t cheap, they’re at least well made (with an offroad-design focus) and supported.

      Delta, thanks for posting your Canadian perspective – agree, 500w and a higher speed ceiling is a much more useful approach – most cycleways I’ve been on have a 40km/h limit which is easy enough to exceed for brief sprints on an unpowered bike.

      I’ve been doing some real-world testing on one of our bikes to see what sort of fitness benefit/cardiovascular load is achieved across
      1) Unpowered MTB
      2)200w limited eBike
      3)3kw/40km/h limited eBike

      The initial results are up at http://store.quietrush.com.au/1/post/2012/11/can-i-get-a-decent-workout-on-an-ebike.html

      I’d be interested to hear from other eBike owners here if they’re doing any sort of heartrate/commute time/peak+average speed monitoring.