Time to Revise NZ Law

As of 25 July 2013, the rules on what is legal in NZ is as follows:

Cycle means: (a) a vehicle that has at least two wheels and that is designed primarily to be propelled by the muscular energy of the rider; and
(b) includes a power-assisted cycle. Power-assisted cycle means a cycle to which is attached one or more auxiliary propulsion motors that have a combined maximum power output not exceeding 300W. 

There are numerous problems with this definition:

  1. Max where? Where is the output measured? In a lab? Where the tyre meets the road? What is printed by the manufacturer on the case?
  2. Compliant? How does a consumer know if they are legal? The Watt rating printed on the motor means nothing.
  3. Non-standard: If printed Watt rating was used, it is out of step with the industry. 250W. 350W, 500W and 750W are the norm.
  4. Non-consistent: America allows 750W. Europe mostly-flat is 250W.Switzerland adopted 500W as a bike & 1000W standard as a motorised bicycle.
  5. Not useful: Maximum output is regulated by the controller. A motor rated at 300W can run at double if the controller allows more current. Motor is the wrong measure.
  6. Not equal: A heavy cargo bike needs more power than a lightweight sports bike.
  7. Fails intent: Bikes can be geared to climb (slower, but more torque) or speed (faster and accordingly less safe) using the same wattage rating.

Now that ebikes are becoming much more popular, New Zealand needs to revise its laws... not borrow them from Australia or Europe or America, but make standards that fit NZ conditions and are "compliable".

Compliable means that a law-abiding rider knows when they are legal, and will not live in fear of a "gotcha" police enforcement if something goes wrong. It also means that the ebike vendors have a simple regime so they know when they are selling a road-legal bike, and when they have to get the buyer to certify it is for offroad purposes (offroad-powered mountain bike [MTB] riding is becoming increasingly popular and may require its own environmental, as opposed to road safety regulations - a subject beyond the scope of this document).

Note: Whoever wrote laws setting limits based on Motor Wattage does not understand much about motors. Wattage is how much electricity will flow through the motor in a second (amps x volts). However, motors are not precise devices, so the wattage is constantly varying and its "maximum power output" can range wildly. It also will vary depending on the battery, as voltage drops over time. The controlling factor is (well-named) the controller. The controller is a programmable box attached to the motor by wires that takes all the input (battery, throttle, pedal signal as well as brake cutoff) to send the right amount of electricity to the motor. A 250W motor can have a controller send it a maximum output of 1000W but it is unlikely that motor will last very long, because it (or some other wires) will heat up and melt. Conversely, a 1000W motor can be controlled so it will never have an output over 250W, which means it will probably last a very long time and never heat up at all, but it will have excess weight to carry around. Thus, in theory, the NZ law could be enforced in such a way that all manufacturer-rated 300W motors in NZ are deemed illegal, because their maximum power output (at the motor or where the tyre hits the road?) could be set up higher than 300W. In contrast, controller settings are far easier to specify, except that even these are unreasonable. Artificially setting the controller to limit power to 300W maximum means that on steep hills, the rider may have to get off and walk if the cadence is not enough to keep the motor from overheating. Generally a manufacturer selling a 300W rated motor will enable it to have short spikes that are higher for that very reason. Bottom Line: that ebike is not unsafe, but for a short period of time, it needs a lower gear and perhaps 600W of power output. That output will vary based on the angle of the hill, the weight of the rider and the characteristics of the bicycle and the motor. For these reasons, NZ needs to have a better set of regulations, but as will be emphasised, these need to be kept very simple.

Principles:

  1. Keep it simple and unregulated. The appeal of bicycles is not only intrinsic but regulatory. No warrant, no rego, no fines unless someone is truly endangering self or others. Just hop on and ride. Keep it simple.
  2. Keep it safe. Ebike motors that assist pedalling are both brilliant and safe. Mostly they flatten hills and enable older and less strong riders to enjoy cycling once again. Cycling is SAFE. Keep it so, but keep it simple
  3. Regulate speed not powerAcknowledge that the range of design means heavier bikes need more power, but that additional power does not have any effect on safety. Keep it simple.
  4. Ebikes are healthy: Acknowledge that while there may be a health risk riding a bike (a small percentage of injuries), everyone who rides a bike gets more exercise which means lower health-care costs and a more civil, connected society.
  5. Ebikes are good. Understand that ebikes are a new form of transport. They reduce congestion, pollution, get people back in the outdoors, and they extend personal travel range without a car or bus. Encourage cycling

Recommendations:

Power-assisted cycle (AB) means a cycle to which is attached one or more auxiliary propulsion motors where the power assist cuts or tapers off so that no power assist is provided over 32 kilometres per hour, and at full throttle from a standanding start, the front wheel(s) remain on the ground. AB Vehicles must have at least one rear-view mirror (or equivalent) to enable the rider to see vehicles behind it and must have front headlight and rear taillight that is on at all times (day and night) when the vehicle is in motion.

For the basic definition, that is all that is needed. 32kph is 20mph, and this has become a generally-accepted standard of what is a safe top speed for an ebike. Yes, ordinary bicycles will go faster down hills, but the issue here is power assist. This shifts the rule from the motor to the controller. Almost every motor made today has a speed limiter setting built into it, thus it is very easy to fix the setting for compliance. Further many controllers have speedometers on them, and an after-market speedometer is inexpensive to add, so a law abiding rider can easily check to ensure they are legal. It should be noted, that fit bicycle riders without power assist often attain speeds of 32 kph (20-mph) on flat ground for extended periods. Bicycles are made for these speeds and faster down hill.

The second part of the standard (the "no wheelie" rule) is a practical way to ensure excessively powerful motors that can cause a cycle to do a wheel-stand are illegal. This has two effects. A law enforcement officer seeing a rider doing a wheelie is able to immediately issue an ticket, and the rider is easily able to assess if the motor is overpowered by giving it full power.

The rear view mirror and lights are not in regulations at present, but they make a lot of sense.The mirror can a mirror on the bike, a mirror on eyeglasses or helmet, or a rear view video display. In regard to lights, with more bikes on the road, car drivers will become more aware, but the see-and-be-seen ethos helps this. This can be accomplished by a hub or wheel generator, permanent lights wired into the battery, or clip-on lights.

Additional New Class:

Local Electric Vehicle (LEV) means a two, three or four-wheeled vehicle to which is attached one or more electrical propulsion motors where the power assist tapers off so that no power assist is provided over 50 kilometres per hour. (Additional safety regulations to be developed).

It is recommended that a new class of ebike be established that is safe, but encourages innovation. Over 32 kph, safety looks for lights, turn-signal, horn, better brakes, tyres and perhaps suspension. Setting the limit at 50kph means the LEV can run in local traffic at the speed of local traffic which means less passing. It is recommended that such vehicles have an age limit (over 12), and perhaps require an annual inspection at a certified bicycle shop, but keep it very simple and low cost. Establish a user's council to advise LTSA on appropriate rules, similar to the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council, with a mandate to ensure a reasonable level safety whilst encouraging innovation in the ebike industry.