Lost opportunities in innovation from regulation and legacy law

I’m a big fan of using bicycles as a means of transportation. Not only is it the most efficient means humans can move themselves with, it’s also environmental and good exercise. It also puts people out there in the open. Exposed to nature and other people. Not locked into noisy cars, in bubbles separated from the rest of the world. I really wish bicycles and similar tools were used much more in urban and suburban environments.

Some politicians and urban planners also think like that. Some have been more successful than everybody else. I’m thinking of course of Denmark and the Netherlands, where urban planners carefully designed transportation veins so that citizens would prefer using bicycles.

I lived one year in China where I experienced all the innovation going on around electric vehicles from scooters, hoverboards, bicycles among other peculiar devices on wheels. Both genius and terrible ideas will flourish when enterprise is free, components are commoditized and regulation low.

I want to focus on the regulation aspect of innovative electric vehicles and urban planning in the EU. Before anyone had even heard about electric bicycles, hoverboards, or segways, the EU and already put in place extensive regulations about how these inventions could be used, and which were forbidden. One can wonder how regulators can be so wise to know exactly how to regulate technology that has not even been tried in any meaningful scale yet. who knows which genius inventions were with good faith made illegal by regulations because they never had a chance to be tried.

The 2002/24/EC EU directive categorized electric vehicles that stop their torque at 25km/h and does not give power when the rider is not pedaling herself, as regular bicycles and not mopeds or other motor vehicles. As with all EU directives, member states can add their tweaks, but it has become the standard for most countries in the European market.

The directive has been implemented gradually by member states since its introduction in 2002. I think I saw an electric bicycle for the first time in 2014, as they were getting more and more common. It’s pretty amazing that the directive was already 12 years old by that time. I’m sure the regulators are great people, but do anyone have that kind of foresight?

What China does

China is in a special situation with regards to electric bicycles and other innovative small, electric vehicles. First, most of the components needed to make such vehicles are made in China and sold cheaply by producers who are very flexible and fast when it comes to product design and redesign. Second, the country is undergoing a massive urbanization. Many will buy their first vehicle ever, and even be the first person in their family to own a  motorized vehicle. Most of the urban population are very familiar with one speed bicycles, but small motorcycles and cars to a lesser degree became common from the 90s. I suspect the bicycle usage in China hit a bottom right before the dockless bicycle sharing craze started in 2016. Third, regulation has been lax with regards to electric vehicles for the most part. Like other (South) East Asian countries, motorbikes were king in China before the main urban centers started severely restricting their use. It’s notoriously hard to get a registration plate for cars in the tier 1 cities, and even harder to get a motorcycle plate. Electric mopeds are currently the dominating vehicle for the “low-end” population, such as migrant workers, but also students, in major cities. They are cheap, widely available and not regulated all too much. They are also produced domestically and sometimes encouraged by local governments. In the countryside and minor urban centers, where gasoline powered motorcycles and mopeds are not restricted, their noisy and polluting cousins dominate, which is a testimony to that the market would prefer these for now. There are also some electric bicycles with pedals that look and feel more like bicycles than mopeds. They are different from their European counterparts in that they will give torque even when the rider is not pedalling, just like a motorbike.

What are we missing?

Other commonly used small electric vehicles include segways, airwheels, hoverboards, kick scooters, and variations of these are in a legal gray area in the EU. According to EU regulations, if they are faster than 6km/h, are not toys for children, or intended for off-road, competitive or industrial use, they are not legal. The 2002 directive only covers pedal-powered vehicles, which kick scooters are not. In the UK, their legal state depends in the interpretation The Highways Act  of 1835(!). Perhaps Europeans take laws too seriously, while in China there are laws for everything, but only a few are enforced and the rest ignored. I remember kick scooters being common in China for commuters working or living in some distance from metro and bus stations. They are reasonably fast and safe for anyone, can be brought on a bus or metro car, and quite cheap. I will end with some good news from my home country Norway. As of April 2018, small electric vehicles weighing less than 70kg and driving slower than 20km/h are regulated as bicycles. That means anyone of any age can use them, using helmet is recommended, but optional. The only requirements are of breaks, reflective tape and a bell if it can be mounted. I hope the San Francisco scooter rental companies realize where their next market is.


Wikipedia laws on electric bicycles

EU directives about light vehicles

EU legislature on light vehicles

EU guidance on scooters

Norway equates small e-vehicles with bicycles