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How do electric cars work?

Find the answers to all your electric car-related questions, from ‘what is an electric vehicle’ to ‘how EVs work’ and ‘are electric cars automatic’.

Nimisha Jain

Words by: Nimisha Jain

Dan Trent

Additional words by: Dan Trent

Last updated on 11 September 2023 | 0 min read

What is an electric car?

Cars powered solely by an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine (or ICE) are known as electric cars, battery electric cars, all-electric cars or battery electric vehicles or BEVs. Generally speaking you'll hear this shortened to just EV, for electric vehicle. From a mechanical point of view where a diesel or petrol car’s powertrain comprises the internal combustion engine, gearbox and fuel tank, an electric car’s powertrain is made up of the battery, the motor, the control systems and the transmission, the latter three sometimes combined into one unit.
Here in the UK, an electric vehicle’s efficiency is usually measured in miles per kilowatt hour (kWh) for an indication of how far you can go on a fully charged battery, this an extrapolation of the miles per gallon most people understand from ICE cars. Other measurements vary from country to country, with many European cars using kWh per 100km instead – you may encounter both (or more) on the trip computer of an electric car, depending on where it was built.

How do electric cars work?

When an electric car is switched on, the motor takes power from the battery and gets the car moving.
When an electric car is plugged into a charging point, the car’s battery pack draws and then stores the energy needed to power the car. The range of an EV depends on the car’s battery – the higher the capacity of the battery (measured in kWh) the greater the range. When an electric car is switched on, the car’s inverter (also known as the controller) receives a flow of direct current (DC). The inverter converts the DC to alternating current (AC) which is sent to the electric motor. The electric motor converts AC to mechanical energy, which turns the wheels and moves the car.

Do electric cars have an engine?

Electric cars don’t have an engine as we traditionally know it – instead, electric cars run on an electric motor, or motors.
These will typically be mounted on or near the car’s axle or axles and can be at the front of the car, the rear or sometimes both. The electric car’s level of performance depends upon the number of electric motors present, their size and the power of the battery. Higher performance EVs often have two electric motors – one on the front axle and the other on the rear – and each motor has its own electric inverter, giving the car all-wheel drive capabilities. Tesla Model S, Audi E-Tron GT, BMW iX and Jaguar I-Pace are a few examples of such a configuration in an electric car. Some models will offer single motor models with front- or rear-wheel drive as well as more expensive, higher performance all-wheel drive variants with more than one motor, examples including the Volvo XC40 Recharge, Volkswagen ID.4 and many others. These will often be branded with descriptions like 'Dual Motor', 'Twin Motor' or All-Wheel Drive to differentiate them from single motor versions. Some EVs have even higher performance capabilities with three motors, like ‘Plaid’ spec Teslas, or even four motors - one for each wheel. One example of a quad-motor EV is the Rimac Concept_One.

Do electric cars have gearboxes?

Diesel and petrol cars need a multi-ratio gearbox to increase speed because they reach peak torque and power figures within a narrow band of engine speed. Electric cars, on the other hand, deliver peak torque at any rpm, which is why most electric cars use a single-speed transmission.
The Porsche Taycan is unusual for having a two-speed gearbox on its rear axle in order to reach the high top speeds customers expect from a sporting brand. Generally, electric vehicles feel more responsive as they don’t need to wait for fuel to be burnt and converted to mechanical energy like petrol and diesel cars do. Electric motors also spin faster than ICE equivalents, some rotating as fast as 20,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) or around three or even four times faster than a typical petrol or diesel.

Are all electric cars automatic?

Electric cars aren’t technically automatics, even though they similarly only have two pedals (an accelerator and a brake) and many will have familiar looking controls like D for drive, R for reverse and P for park. Nor will you find one with a manual gearbox. Traditional automatic cars have multi-speed gearboxes that shift themselves according to how much acceleration the driver is demanding at a given moment. EVs, on the other hand, typically use a single-speed transmission to channel the motor’s output to the wheels with no need to shift gears at all. As such there’s no clutch pedal and you can drive an electric car on an automatic-only driving licence.
Since EVs have a single gear, they don’t even have a reverse gear. The electric motor can rotate clockwise and anti-clockwise at the same speed, which also means, in theory, an electric car can go forward and backwards at the same speed if the speed limiter is removed in reverse mode. You can see this in action in our Tesla Model 3 vs. Polestar 2 drag race.

Driving an electric car

Electric cars feel fast from the get-go – the minute you start driving an EV, the immediate supply of torque means EVs quickly accelerate from 0-62 mph – often even faster than powerful ICE sports cars.

How difficult is it to drive an electric car?

Driving an electric car can feel very straightforward given it doesn’t require any gear changes and the power delivery is usually very smooth and easy to control. The instant response also makes driving situations where you need a sudden burst of acceleration, such as steep hills or when merging onto a fast-moving motorway, much less stressful.

Are electric cars fun to drive?

You may hear some more traditional car fans claim electric cars are less fun to drive than combustion engined alternatives because they don't create the same sounds, sensations or level of involvement because you don't get to change gear yourself. Which may be true for real enthusiasts, but for most drivers the instant response of an EV is fun in a different way. Even a fairly average electric car will probably have greater performance than an equivalent ICE car, typically felt in the silent and seamless rush of acceleration. And while most EVs are heavier like for like the fact the weight is typically low down in the car (often under the floor) actually makes them feel more secure for the corners, something you'll especially notice in taller vehicles like SUVs and crossovers.

How efficient is driving an electric car?

Electric cars use regenerative braking to help increase range and efficiency. Regenerative braking is a method of recovering energy each time you release the accelerator, the motor effectively becoming a generator and charging the battery as the vehicle slows down. Most electric cars let you adjust how strong this regenerative effect is according to the driving conditions, some even offering so-called ‘one-pedal driving’ where the car will slow to a complete stop just by lifting off the accelerator. With electric cars, it can be more efficient to drive on city roads rather than highways where you hardly brake, as driving in traffic means you can make use of regenerative braking.

Do electric cars make noise when driving?

Electric motors make a lot less noise than a conventional petrol or diesel, to the point where any mechanical sound will probably be drowned out by the roar from the tyres. As a result many countries have made it mandatory for EVs to be fitted with an acoustic vehicle alerting system (AVAS), or a warning sound system to alert vulnerable road users. This is especially vital in car parks and other situations where pedestrians and vehicles mix.

How do you charge an electric car?

You can charge electric cars both at home and whilst you're out and about.
Learn more about charging your electric car at home or charging an electric car using a charging station. With more charging points being installed around the country, it’s getting easier to live with an electric vehicle day to day. Use our charging map to find all the charging stations near you. Wherever you charge your car, you’ll use one of three types of charging point: slow, fast or rapid. Find out more about these different types of chargers.
You can learn more about electric cars or browse from thousands of new and used electric cars on Auto Trader.
We’re also giving away a free electric car each month – all you need to do is enter our giveaway and stand the chance to drive away an electric car for free.