Good morning and welcome back to The Fast Charge, the electric motoring newsletter. I’m Tom Riley.
Today is a special newsletter. Not only is it the 20th edition - thank you to everyone still reading - but I’ve also got quite a juicy story.
Sadly, it’s not about cars. But it is about electric bikes that are being converted by couriers at home using kits bought online. Though a great way to reduce costs, I’ve discovered that many are installing illegal motors to their pushbikes - essentially making them motorcycles. And the police have now caught on.
Because of story’s length, the news section this week is very short!
If you do find The Fast Charge interesting, please do share it or invite your friends to sign-up. Likewise, do drop me an email at email@example.com if you have any questions or comments.
In the news…
Shell has partnered with the EV car subscription company Onto
The London Electric Vehicle Company - who make electric black cabs - has signed for a new factory in Coventry
Manchester has partnered with the network Engie to install new chargers for refuse trucks
Toyota has teased the world with a photo of a new car called the ‘X Prologue’ due to be unveiled on the 17th of March
The head of strategy at VW, Michael Jost, who was working on the companies plan to go electric, has left the car manufacturer to make autonomous electric yachts instead. Read more
The Department of Transport (DfT) announced a new £20m fund for electric vehicle innovations. The fund isn’t open yet but will be soon. More details
And good news for motorways. DfT has also confirmed this week that it aims to have at least six high powered open-access charging stations at every motorway service area in England by 2023. This will increase to at least 2,500 high powered chargers across the strategic road network by 2030 and 6,000 by 2035. At the moment Ecotricity dominates motorway services and have been criticised for being unmaintained.
Has the promotion of e-bikes created a police crackdown?
“Police are starting to stop and search recently.”
If I told you that comment was on a forum for Deliveroo riders, you might expect it related to drug trafficking. Or perhaps stolen orders. But, no, it relates to electric bikes.
It is one of the numerous comments on an active Reddit forum for Deliveroo riders about an apparent crackdown on gig economy workers who are converting their pushbikes to illegal levels.
The workers have been able to do this by buying popular ‘e-bike conversion kits’ on sites like Amazon which come with highly powered 1000 watt electric motors - that under UK law are classed as motorcycles - for under £500.
Perhaps most alarmingly, it seems the efforts of platforms like Deliveroo to incentivise more of their riders to switch to e-bikes may have in fact encouraged the swarm of illegal motors on UK roads.
Let’s step back
In the last couple of years, delivery platforms have been encouraging users to switch to electric bikes over traditional pushbikes. This has included partnering with e-bike suppliers - such as Zoomo, ETT and VoltBikes who lease e-bikes - as well as providing their own guidance on how riders can convert their bikes to electric - such as this handy Deliveroo guide from June 2020.
And the push for e-bikes has only increased as the government has brought about its green commitments.
Electrification of bikes is good for companies like Deliveroo as it often means riders stay out longer and can do more trips in a shorter time - as e-bikes are much faster and economical to pushbikes because of their battery power.
In the UK, the law says that an e-bike must not exceed 250 watts (W) of power to be road legal, and must stop giving assistance at 15.5mph. They also are not allowed to have a throttle that propels them above walking pace - all e-bikes must be pedal assist. People’s e-bikes also need to show performance details clearly.
Platforms make the rules plain in their guidance and state it’s the responsibility of riders to comply.
However, despite the warnings, many comments on the popular Deliveroo Reddit forum suggest gig workers have been converting their bikes to faster illegal 1000W motors - which can propel riders over 30mph.
Stop and search
E-bikes increasingly come up on the message board. Posts by users within the last two months suggest police forces have started cracking down on illegal conversions.
In one video posted on Reddit last month, a Met Police Officer in Covent Garden can be seen demanding information from a fellow Deliveroo rider about his e-bike’s performance, including its throttling, max speed and batteries.
“If you show me those three things, then it’s legal. If you can’t, it is illegal,” demanded the officer.
When the rider suggests he can’t provide the information required, the police officer, perhaps not believing him, retorts, “you made it.”
The comments underneath the video and elsewhere suggest the practice could be widespread.
“Some of the stuff that's been flying past me (with next to no noise) worries me that at some point there's going to be some serious accidents,” said one Reddit user. Two other users replied saying police in Dublin had also started doing checks too.
Anyone caught with an illegal e-bike is liable to fines and the vehicle could be seized. This is because e-bikes with more than 250W of power are classed as motorcycles or mopeds, and they require a license and insurance.
Despite this, many users seemed unfazed labelling it a “witch hunt”. One user even suggested a workaround to fellow riders which would “pass any sniff test by the coppers”.
“Having a throttle is only against the rules if your bike was made after 1/1/2016. Before that it's completely fine.” said the Reddit user. “For a legal high power e-bike you need three things: a bike frame from before the beginning of 2016; a 250W sticker that you can put on your motor; a switch placed somewhere discreetly that enables a 15mph limiter.” they continued.
Did delivery platforms cause this?
Despite being clear on the rules, the surge in illegal conversions could be down to apps like Deliveroo and UberEats.
While their platforms have encouraged take-up via partnerships with suppliers - which is fine - they have also updated their services so riders can list as using an e-bike over a traditional bike. In order to prove this, riders have to submit details to the platforms first.
It’s unconfirmed, but many users have claimed this switch leads to being offered more delivery jobs by the apps - which means more wonga in the bank for e-bike riders.
It’s arguable that this is leading people to buy conversions that give them an edge. Many complain the rates are so low per delivery, speed has become king. And, after all, the purpose of riding on platforms like Deliveroo is to maximise your earnings.
Another reason for the popularity of faster conversions is how easy it is to get one.
Kits of 1000W motors can be bought from Amazon - who do not ban the sales to the UK despite them being illegal on roads - and they are certainly much cheaper than leasing or buying a whole new e-bike - which can often cost thousands of pounds
Some of the conversions on Amazon can be picked up for only £175.
Many Reddit users do point out to their fellow riders that these 1000W motors are illegal, though not all seem to care.
“An electric e-bike like this costs about £500 a moped costs at least £1000 plus about £2000 a year insurance, plus petrol. Let these guys do what they want they’re saving themselves lots of money and helping the environment,” rationalised one user.
Some users argue the 1000W motor kits can be throttled down to 250W making them road legal. There are also some retailers who say 1000W motors are perfectly legal to own if used off-road.
What does this mean for normal e-bike users?
With Summer on the horizon, there can be no doubt we’ll see more e-bikes hitting the streets. Sales have boomed during the UK’s lockdown, in 2020 demand for electric bikes and scooters soared 230%.
While those bought from retail stores will be totally road legal, they are extremely expensive so many may decide to choose a home conversion kit instead. They are simple enough to do, but whether people understand what is and isn’t legal remains to be seen.
The only tougher regulation the government could introduce would be around insurance requirements for e-bikes, but that would surely be a disaster for Boris Johnson’s cycling agenda.
Time will tell!
By Tom Riley
Note. While I have focussed on a Deliveroo forum, this practice may also apply to couriers using other delivery apps like UberEats. The Deliveroo forum is the most active in the UK space and is often occupied by a multitude of gig economy workers.