One of the biggest questions about electric bikes is “What’s the difference between motors?” and that’s because there are several different types including geared and gearless hubs, mid-drives and shaft drives. Not to mention brushed and brushless… I’m hoping this post can help to clarify the space a bit so you can focus in on finding the right ebike for your intended use.
What are Hub Motors?
Hub motors were the first type of drive systems for bicycles to be patented and they continue to be popular today. Instead of trying to integrate a motor into the bicycle drivetrain (complimenting the gears and chain that the rider uses) hub motors stay completely separate. Electricity is run through copper wires to create electromagnets which repel traditional rare Earth magnets and create force that rotates the hub forward (and sometimes backwards). In the early days brushed motors were used because they are inexpensive and require less sophisticated control systems but the brushes wear out over time and require replacement. These days, nearly every hub motor (geared or gearless is brushess and uses direct current DC).
Hub motors for bicycles are usually positioned at the middle of a wheel and when the bike is powered off they function much like a traditional hub (connecting the tire, rim and spokes to the axle. Spokes are flexible and light weight, they absorb some shock when riding but can come out of true over time. Regular bicycle maintenance is still required with an electric bike and one downside to hub motor designs is that they add additional weight to the wheel and require extra wires to deliver electricity and communications about operation. This means that truing wheels and repairing flats requires more effort.
So hub motors take the place of regular light weight hubs, connecting the wheel to the bicycle axle. As they receive electricity and spin, the bike is propelled forward and some of this energy is exerted into the frame at the dropouts. Usually the sturdiest place to mount a hub motor is in the rear wheel because these dropouts are reinforced and have four legs connecting them to the rest of the frame instead of just two on the front fork. These four arms consist of two seat stays and two chain stays.
In some cases a front mounted hub motor is preferred because it allows an internally geared hub or continuously variable transmission CVT hub such as the NuVinci to be used in the rear. Some of the newest electric bikes like the Smart ebike combine an internally geared hub (that the cyclist pedals) with a hub motor and are able to put both in the rear wheel.
Now that you’ve got an understanding for what a hub motor is… let’s talk about the benefits, drawbacks and ride quality. Hub motors tend to be peaky vs. torquey meaning they operate best at medium and high speeds. This makes them zippy and satisfying no matter which gear you’re pedaling in but less efficient over a range of speeds, especially slower ones. For example, if you’re starting from rest going up a hill and try to accelerate with a hub motor, it may struggle and even shut itself off. Here’s a short video I shot with a smaller 250 watt hub motor climbing a hill to demonstrate this.
A big drawback to hub motors is that they position weight further out towards the end of the bike (either the front or back) which reduces balance. This can play a role when jumping a bike or taking it off road. Additionally motor weight is built into the wheel which increases unsprung weight, that is weight that cannot be “sprung” as a part of the main frame. This can be a tricky concept so I’ve made a short video to help clarify. In short, suspension can perform better if the elements it is suspending are lighter because they do not have to deal with as much inertia.
Ultimately, hub motors allow the rider can choose whichever gear they want, pedal at any cadence desired and apply varying force with each stride without playing a material role in how the motor functions. I love hub designs for this reason, there’s nothing pulling on your chain, making it difficult or jarring to change gears… but while the motor is always ready to go, it’s not always performing optimally (for either power or speed).
What are Geared Hub Motors?
Hub motors come in two different types including geared (usually a planetary design) and direct drive or gearless (relying on larger magnets and no gears). Gears provide leverage, enabling smaller and lighter weight motors to achieve greater output but also produce friction, noise and wear. Most modern geared hub motors are built very well and should last for many years so don’t get too spooked. It may seem counter intuitive but geared hub motors do not add resistance when coasting. This is because they usually contain a freewheel mechanism that can unlatch from the axle and spin with little to no friction.
Pictured below is a 350 watt geared hub motor on an Easy Motion ebike:
This is a picture of what one geared hub motor looks like inside, you can see the three planetary gears that step down the speed and help produce torque for starting and climbing:
What are Gearless Hub Motors?
Moving on to the next motor type, gearless hub motors deliver smooth, quiet performance and are often considered “bulletproof” by shops due to their simplicity. That said… I’ve heard of the glue inside that holds the magnets onto the canister or frame coming loose due to heat and excessive vibration. Gearless hub motors rely purely on electromagnets and may not include a freewheel mechanism because when the magnets are powered off there is very little friction or magnetic resistance to overcome. Motors that do not freewheel are called direct drive and this actually enables regeneration (the production of electricity based on repelling magnets inside the motor).
Not all gearless direct drive hub motors offer regenerative braking or regen modes because you don’t tend to recoup much energy this way (although it can help reduce wear on brake pads). It’s a neat feature but it costs more to implement and adds complexity to the system. Some ebikes that do offere regen are the Specialized Turbo, all of the Stealth electric bikes and all of the BionX kits and bikes that use them like the Smart electric bike.
Gearless hub motors may require a larger casing (in order to accommodate the magnets) and ultimately weigh more. This is of course a generalization because the technology has evolved to the point where some direct drive hub motors are quite small and lightweight.
Pictured below is a 500 watt direct drive hub motor on a Pedego ebike which does not offer regen but is still quiet, powerful and durable:
Here is a picture of what the inside of one gearless, direct drive hub motor looks like. You can see the magnets glued around the outside of the cylinder and just inside from them are electromagnets (made from metal and copper wiring) that create repelling force to drive the motor forward without the use of gears:
So to recap… hub motors operate independently of the rider pedaling, they can be geared or gearless, can fit in the rear wheel, front wheel or even independently from the wheels as with the Organic Transit ELF (though this is very uncommon) and they can sometimes generate electricity. Some drawbacks of all hub motors include increased unsprung weight, which can reduce traction, limit efficiency and strain spokes and rims. They usually have just one gear setting that can operate at a faster or slower speed but cannot shift for improved torque or speed. They also tend to make wheels more difficult to service (changing flat tires or fixing spokes) because they add weight to the wheel and require extra cables to deliver electricity and operation signals (unless they are an all in one hub motor like the FlyKly or Copenhagen Wheel).
What is a Mid-Drive Motor?
As we transition into mid-drive systems, imagine this scenario. A rider with a hub motor driven electric bike approaches a very steep hill, stops completely and then uses a twist throttle to power forward. The motor is likely going to struggle because it is designed for relatively flat surfaces and provides “peakey” output as mentioned before. So the motor groans and slowly pushes the rider forward. Without pedaling along, most hub motor designs just cannot carry an average sized passenger up a steep incline from rest. This is where we get into the benefits of a mid-drive system.
Pictured below is a 350 watt Bosch Centerdrive mid drive motor system on a Haibike ebike:
Climbing is where mid-drive motors really shine. Unlike a hub motor, this design lives at or near the bottom bracket (the point where the crank arms attach through the frame for pedaling) and drives the chain forward instead of the wheel itself. Mid drive systems benefit from many of the same mechanical drivetrain systems as the rider (the use of gears for climbing or going fast) and reduce unsprung weight. This is the optimal setup for efficiency (extending ride distance) and climbing.
Imagine a full suspension electric mountain bike with a mid drive motor. The front and rear wheels can rebound quickly and efficiently because their mass is lower and the overall weight of the bike itself is connected to the main section of the frame making it feel fluid. When approaching a large hill, the rider can shift into a low gear providing mechanical advantage making it “easier” to pedal and climb. Just as the rider benefits in this scenario so too does the motor. While the overall speed of the bike is reduced for climbing, neither the rider, nor motor will be over exerted thanks to the gears. In this scenario the rear dropouts also endure less strain because the weight and force of the motor are spread out and connected to the major tubing of the bottom bracket.
Gears are both a blessing and a curse with mid drive systems because now instead of just the rider exerting force into the system (the chain, rear cassette cog teeth and derailleur), the motor is as well. If you’ve ever changed gears when pedaling hard, you may remember the awful sounds and sensations of mashing, crunching or grinding. The teeth used to pull the chain and the derailleur arms used to move the chain from one sprocket to another are sensitive, requiring a certain finesse to activate properly. Doing so will extend the life of your bike and help you to avoid tune-ups and cassette replacement.
To shift optimally I suggest gaining speed then relaxing the force being applied to the pedals, shifting, then maintaining a gentle cadence until the chain is correctly aligned before exerting more force. This may be difficult on a pedelec system where the rider relaxes their input but the motor continues to pull hard. In this kind of situation it may be ideal to shift on a flat surface where little force is required to keep the bike moving forward. The problem here is that often shifting is done when encountering hills or starting from rest; just as more force is required to maintain speed. Long story short, be gentle when shifting and recognize that mid-drive motors pull the same chain that you do as a rider.
Ultimately, I have a love hate relationship with mid drive systems because I appreciate their efficiency but miss some of the zip and instant gratification that hub motors offer. They are often noisier as well… Some mid drive systems can feel clunky and frustrating to shift but others are actually very satisfying to use. I’m talking about the Bosch System and similar high quality offerings which can actually sense that you’re trying to shift and gently cut the motor so you won’t strain the drivetrain. The final advantage with mid-drives is that the motor weight is located centrally on the frame in addition to being low. This is going to provide stability when riding or lifting the ebike for transport or storage. One quick downside is that the motor may be vulnerable to rocks and logs on the trail with a mid-drive because it’s not surrounded by spokes and a wheel like hub motors are. In my experience, most mid-drives are protected with some plastic or metal casing that can take a few hard hits before suffering damage.
One other drive system that sort of splits the difference between mid drive and hub drive is the shaft drive. It works like an automobile, positioning the motor more towards the center of the bike while driving the rear wheel with a shaft. These are not very common today, perhaps because they require extremely customized frames that are not symmetrical. While a rear wheel drive truck often has a drive shaft extending from the motor (under the hood) back to the rear wheels that is located centrally under the body, a bicycle has to use one of the chain stay arms to support the shaft. This makes it look a bit awkward and perhaps difficult to service as well.
In summary, the drive system you choose will impact the overall weight and weight-distribution of your electric bike. It will provide more or less efficiency for riding fast, climbing or navigating bumps and it will cost more or less depending on how customized the frame is and whether it offers regeneration and special sensors for shifting gears. I lean towards geared hub motors for affordable light weight around-town transportation, direct drive hub motors for quieter riding, increased power and regenerative braking and mid drive motors for mountain biking or lots of hill climbing.