A bicycle and motorcycle feature the same basic design: two tandem wheels supported by a frame that is equipped with handle bars and a riding seat. Electric versions add a motor and a rechargeable battery pack, and these have been around much longer than you think. But the similarities between e-motor/bikes largely end there.
Beyond the obvious mechanical differences (e.g., power), there also are roadway rules to follow that are distinct for each. While not an apples-to-apples comparison (because they’re not), we’ll cover the overarching basics below, from composition to compliance.
In the Beginning
To the surprise of probably no one, the bicycle was invented before the motorcycle. A two-wheeled vehicle was unveiled in Germany in 1817, although the term bicycle wasn’t officially coined until 1868. Incidentally, a steam-powered motorcycle was introduced around the same time.
But, to not upset pedantic historians, the motorbike as we know it today—with a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine (ICE)—was built in 1885 by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. (Yes, that Daimler and Maybach.)
In terms of electrification, however, the bicycle and motorcycle saw far less of a development gap with the first patent for an “electrical bicycle” being submitted in 1895. Popular Mechanics made reference to an “electric motorcycle” in 1911, but a physical rendering did not exist beyond its pages until a 1919 British prototype. Concurrently, Henry Ford had already been mass-producing the Model T since 1908.
So, while the technology has been available for more than a century, e-motor/bikes haven’t taken off with any sort of popularity or public interest until fairly recently, mostly on the heels of consumer awareness regarding environmentalism and sustainability.
E-motor/bikes operate much like their non-battery-operated alter-egos. With an e-bicycle, U.S. federal law defines them as a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with operational pedals paired with an electric motor of less than 750 watts. The motor-only maximum speed is limited at 20 mph.
From there, e-bikes are further divided into three classes. Class 1 means pedal-assisted, or pedal electric cycles (pedelecs), where the motor provides the rider with a power boost, like when climbing steep hills. Class 2 is throttle-on-demand, meaning no human-pedaling is necessary to move forward or maintain speed. Class 3s are considered ”speed pedelecs,” and basically a combination of the previous two classes. This class still limits the electric-only mode to 20 mph, but with pedal assistance, a determined rider can reach speeds upwards of 28 mph.
Because cyclists still like the idea of pedaling (hi, spin class), the majority of e-bicycles sold are either Class 1 or 3. Also, no state currently requires motorized bicycles to be registered. Most do not require additional licensing to ride either, but almost all have a minimum age, from as young as 8 years old (accompanied) to 16.
Always consult local laws before hopping on, whether it be a factory model or kit retrofit. As for motorcycles—ICE-equipped or otherwise— an M-class endorsement is required and owners must register their rides. Scooters and mopeds have their own state-line qualifiers, but we won’t get into them here.
In terms of motorcycle types, there are three overview categories (street, dual-purpose, and off-road), but with an additional subset to further distinguish the nine variations. Luckily, you can find an electric model in all of them, from cruiser to supercross.
Also, no limits on power or speed other than those determined by the manufacturer. With e-motorcycles, zero-to-60 mph times can now part of bragging rights discussions along with torque and top speed. Definitely no Flintstones-style foot power here.
Weight can be an issue for some shoppers, though. E-bicycles are inherently heavier than the typical sports shop model thanks to the added motor, battery pack, controller, and reinforced frame. On average, e-bikes weigh-in starting around 40 pounds—twice as much as a conventional one. Purpose-built models (i.e., mountain, cargo) can hit the scales at 50 pounds and beyond. E-motorcycles fall into the same weight-gain trap, with even larger battery packs being a bit of a drag.
What’s My Range Again?
The rechargeable batteries of an electric bike are smaller than in an e-motorcycle and can be one of the following systems: lithium-ion (Li-ion), nickel-cadmium (NiCad), nickel-metal hydride (NiMH), or sealed lead-acid (SLA).
SLA was once the norm for e-bicycles and e-scooters, but newer models are increasingly being equipped with Li-ion. The same goes for e-motorcycles. Early versions featured NiMH batteries but modern ones have shifted to Li-ion. Although more expensive, they are lightweight, require less maintenance, offer better range, and have a longer lifespan.
Charging for bikes and motorcycles are quite different, however. E-bicycles can utilize a standard wall outlet, with high-quality Li-ion packs obtaining a full charge within a couple of hours. Their lifecycle ranges from 700-1000 charges, or up to almost three years of daily use.
Electric motorbikes can also use a two-pronged outlet approach, but like battery-electric vehicles, this is an overnight waiting game at best. Thankfully, all-electric companies like Zero Motorcycles and Lightning Motorcycle offer quicker Level 2 (CHAdeMO) and even DC fast charging capabilities.
As it stands, though, riding range leans toward shorter stints than distant destinations. Your mileage will vary, with power, weight, and riding style being primary factors. You’re looking at 30-100 miles for an e-bicycle, where the more you utilize pedal power, the farther a fully-charged battery can take you. Surprisingly, e-motorcycles are within a similar mileage range with mile marker 130 being considered long distance. But extended-mileage options do exist.
The Zero S Smart Streetfighter is currently the longest-range production electric motorcycle, able to travel up to 223 city miles. Its combined city/highway range at a 70-mph cruising speed is 150 miles. If you slow down to 55 mph, range sees a small increase of 19 miles. Worth noting is that even with Level 2 charging, its battery will still take about three hours to reach 95 percent capacity.
On the Road
Speaking of commutes, where you ride and what you wear matter. E-motorcycles can go fast. Like 218 mph fast, as is the top speed of Lightning Motorcycle’s LS-218 Superbike, which also makes it the fastest motorcycle of any kind. Then again, not all electric motorbikes have an output of 200 horsepower and 168 lb.-ft. of instant torque.
On average, expect a rather pedestrian 50-65 mph for your city cruising or dirt digging e-motorcycle. For riders with highways, boulevards, and other wide expanses along their route, this would be the better option than 28 mph-limited e-bikes.
Further restrictions for e-pedaling include following the local regulations regarding conventional bicycles. Riders should remain in available bike paths, travel in the direction of traffic, and follow the same road rules as automobiles. And e-motorcycle riders are to behave exactly like their emissions-emitting twins.
With the varying traveling speeds and road surfaces, wear ride-appropriate attire. For example, although helmets remain sporadic, location-based requirements for any two- or three-wheeled mobility vehicle—with or without a motor—accidents happen. Motorcyclists also have specific clothing with built-in composite protectors or removable body armor. From jackets to jeans, styles offer casual, everyday vibes or sportbike aggressive.
Dollars and Sense
Like electric vehicles versus ICE or hybrid models, electric versions of bicycles and motorcycles will be more expensive than their non-electric brethren. Cycling experts have landed on $1,500 as the sweet spot for a quality starter e-bike.
Electric motorcycles are more expensive, in that for a price premium over a gasoline-power moto, you end up with a wonky power-to-range ratio. And all but the high-dollar models reach highway-comfortable speeds. On the other hand, e-motorbikes do qualify for federal and state tax help.
The federal incentive is 10 percent of the vehicle’s cost, up to $2,500. As always, state credits will vary. For example, California has a $900 rebate, Massachusetts’ rebate is $450, and Arizona and Illinois offer reduced license and registration fees. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center has a useful search tool for more specific inquiries.
Again, bicycles and motorcycles require completely different mindsets, maintenance, and money, regardless of what propels them. Some riders may own both, but it’s usually one or the other. Whether a luxury or a lifestyle, both are quiet to operate, produce zero emissions, easy to park, and don’t require a literal roof over their heads. So, yes, e-motor/bikes can be dependable dailies, but the Great American e-road trip might require a bit of hypermiling. It’s best to plan head—at least on two wheels.