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What is an electric car and how do they work?

January 08, 2024 by

Electric cars are no longer the future, they are the now, with the UK electric vehicle market continuing to grow rapidly. These battery-powered cars ditch fossil fuels in favour of the same stuff you can run a toaster, hairdryer or your games console from.

What makes them so different (or similar) to the petrol and diesel cars we all know so well? This guide explains.

How do electric cars work?

An electric car powers its wheels using electric motors, not too dissimilar to the ones you’d find in a radio-controlled car. Albeit much bigger and more powerful.

These motors draw power from banks of rechargeable batteries that are typically stored under the floor of a car. Less commonly, they can be stacked where you’d traditionally find an engine.

The inner parts of an electric car

Electric cars are much simpler than those driven by an internal combustion engine (ICE) that burns petrol or diesel fuel. Traditional cars use thousands of components to burn fuel then turn this energy into power that can be transmitted through a gearbox to the wheels. An EV only needs two core components:

  • A motor (or two, sometimes more)

Most electric cars on sale right now use a single motor to power a car. These work by creating a magnetic field that turns a rotor shaft. This is used to drive the car’s wheels.

A lot of performance-oriented electric cars use two motors for more power — usually one at the front and another at the back. Three-motor setups are uncommon but it’s not unheard of (take the Audi e-tron S and Tesla Model S Plaid for example), while serious electric hypercars like the Rimac Nevera use four.

  • Batteries

Battery packs in electric cars are made up of stacks of cells – a little like the way a TV remote uses multiple batteries stacked together.

Power from these will then be used to power the car’s electric motors. These batteries are rechargeable and can be topped up either at home or through faster public chargers.

What are the different types of electric car?

There are three common types of electric cars available:

Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)

This is the most common type of electric car on sale at the moment. Simply, these are electric cars using just batteries and motors for propulsion.

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV)

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles are more commonly known as hydrogen cars. These use a fuel cell that takes hydrogen and converts it into electrical energy.

Hydrogen cars have a benefit over BEVs in that they can be refuelled with hydrogen in a fashion similar to topping up petrol. However, very few stations are open in the UK at the moment and hydrogen cars are much more expensive to buy than conventional EV equivalents.

Extended Range Electric Vehicle (E-REV)

Extended Range Electric Vehicles work very similarly to battery-electric cars but have a very small petrol or diesel engine on board to charge the batteries.

These are increasingly rare though. The last E-REV vehicle on sale in the UK — the BMW i3 — left the market in 2018.

Charging an electric car

You can charge an electric car at home, or by using faster publicly-available chargers. Support for particular types of charging will vary depending on your model, but the most common types include:

  • Three-pin plug home charging

As long as you have a free plug socket and a cable long enough to reach, you could charge an electric car from a regular three-pin socket. However, this will take an extremely long time and you should avoid using extension cables. These are not designed for charging electric cars and may fail, potentially leading to electrical fires.

  • Home wall box chargers

Most car manufacturers will offer a wall box with your new electric car, though you can have these installed by a third party too. These are dedicated charging points wired into your house which provides much more power than a regular plug socket — typically around 7kW.

As a result, they can charge an electric car in a few hours. It’s an ideal way to keep your car topped up when you’re at home.

  • Public charging

If you need more charge while you’re out and about though, more and more public charging points are becoming available.

Speeds can vary massively, from 7kW units similar to those you can have installed at home right up to 350kW rapid-chargers that will charge compatible cars in less than half an hour.

Public charging tends to be a lot more expensive than charging at home though, so you may be best using it on a needs-must basis.

You’ll also need to be mindful of your adapter type when using public charging.

Driving an electric car

Where an electric car is incredibly similar to a petrol or diesel one is how you drive it. The process is the exact same — just with less noise.

If you already drive an automatic car, you’ll be right at home. Though most electric cars don’t use a gearbox like internal combustion options, they can be operated in a similar fashion — with Drive, Neutral, Reverse and Park modes all replicating automatics.

One thing that does differ is regenerative braking. This is where the car uses its brakes to convert kinetic energy into charge for the batteries.

Many cars will allow you to alter the strength of this, and it creates a similar feeling to ‘engine braking’ — which is what you would use in a petrol or diesel car to slow a car down by changing to a lower gear.

Who makes electric cars?

Most car manufacturers today offer at least one electric car in their lineups. These include:

Abarth

Audi

BMW

BYD

Citroen

Cupra

DS

Fiat

Ford

Genesis

Honda

Hyundai

Jaguar

Jeep

Kia

Lexus

Mazda

Mercedes

MG

MINI

Nissan

Ora

Peugeot

Polestar

Porsche

Renault

Skoda

Smart

Subaru

Tesla

Toyota

Vauxhall

Volkswagen

Volvo

FAQs: electric cars

When was the electric car invented?

The electric car dates all the way back to the 1830s when inventors began to use electric-powered carts as a mode of transport.

Do electric cars use oil?

Electric cars don’t require engine oil, but they still use some lubricants that may need changing.

Do electric cars have an exhaust?

Electric cars have no need for an exhaust system as their electrical systems don’t produce emissions while driving.