Dear Ms. Hankin:
This is in reply to your letter of June 16, 1997, to Taylor Vinson of this Office. You have informed us that six manufacturers of electric bicycles are offering their products to Whittier College, five of which say they are exempt from DOT requirements. As you "want to comply with" our rules, you have asked us to clarify our requirements.
We are pleased to do so. First, let me assure you that we have no rules that apply to Whittier College as the purchaser of electric bicycles. Our rules do apply to the manufacturers of "motor vehicles," and the question is whether the manufacturers of bicycles equipped with electric motors are subject to them.
Under the laws we administer, a "motor vehicle" is one that is driven by mechanical power. Thus, an ordinary bicycle is not a "motor vehicle" because it is driven solely by muscular power. We have also concluded that a bicycle with an engine that supplements muscular power rather than superseding it to become the primary propulsion source is also not a "motor vehicle." Vehicles that are not "motor vehicles" are subject to the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
By way of explanation, the addition of a motor to a bicycle transforms it into a "motor vehicle" if the motor operates primarily as a substitute for muscular power. We use the informal term "electric bicycle" to identify a bicycle with a full-time electric motor that provides the main propulsion force of the vehicle. Electric bicycles are required to meet Federal motor vehicle safety standards applicable to a class of vehicle called "motor driven cycle." One example of an electric bicycle is the EV Warrior, which is certified by its manufacturer, the Electric Bicycle Company, as meeting applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards.
Some manufacturers offer a "power assist" which supplements rather than replaces muscular power as the prime mover of the bicycle. This feature is intended to help bicyclists in faster get-aways from stop lights and in climbing hills. We have advised that, if the bicycle cannot be operated by the power assist alone, the bicycle will not be a "motor vehicle" subject to our regulations. For example, last year one of your correspondents, AeroVironment, informed us that its "bicycle with power amplification system" was designed so that "the bicycle must be pedaled. If the rider stops pedaling, the power assist is also stopped." We advised it on June 14, 1996, that its product would not be a "motor vehicle" since the power assist system does not operate in the absence of muscular effort, even though the power assist system operates full time as a supplement to muscular power. In addition to AeroVironment, these inquirers, which appear to be offering bicycles with "power assists," included Yamaha, Sanyo, Matsushita, and Zimmark.
Six manufacturers replied to your "The Whittier Experiment Electric Bicycle Questionnaire." Question 11 asks in part "What is the maximum time or distance a rider may go on electric power only?" The answers were "8-20 miles" (ZAP Power Systems), "If the rider does not pedal at all, an average charge will last approximately fifty minutes" (ETC Electric Transportation Company), and "20 miles sans pedaling" (B.A.T. Electrobike). The answers of the fourth and fifth manufacturers, Currie Technologies and the Electric Bicycle Company, were not responsive to the question, but their product literature states, respectively, that the distance between battery charges is "20 miles at 10 mph without pedaling" and "Up to 15 miles on a single charge." These responses and the manufacturers' product literature which you enclosed suggest that the electric engines of these vehicles are intended to serve as the primary propulsion source, and can do so for distances up to 20 miles. Our Office of Safety Assurance intends to contact these manufacturers to ascertain whether their products are subject to the Federal motor vehicle safety standards.
We thank you for bringing this matter to our attention and affording us an opportunity to advise you. If you have further questions, you may telephone Taylor Vinson of this Office (202-366-5263).
Acting Chief Counsel